When It Comes to Health, How Often Should We Eat?

BRINGING A LUNCHBOX to work is not uncommon, but lugging seven to eight such boxes daily to the office for the last three years and counting?

One can certainly understand the curious glances Mr Leonard Seek gets when he shows up at work with multiple containers and resealable food bags. Each of these is filled with various foods he has prepared at 5am to be eaten throughout the day.

Why does Mr Seek, a Health Advisor at the National Skin Centre's Department of Sexually Transmitted Infections Control Clinic, do this? Is he trying to gain weight?

He is among those who believe that eating many meals—instead of the customary three square meals—is a way to encourage a healthy metabolism (turning food into energy). He also believes it can help to stave off hunger and prevent overeating. Mr Seek's packed 'meals' vary in size but timing is everything—he eats at intervals of no longer than two-and-a-half hours.

Breakfast is at 6.30am—a banana, a green apple, yoghurt, cereal and rolled oats. In between, Mr Seek snacks on almonds or strawberries, dark chocolate, hard-boiled eggs, kidney beans and green apples.

His main meals—taken roughly at conventional timings—consist of fist-sized portions of carbohydrates (steamed sweet potatoes or red rice are his preferred choices), vegetables (baby spinach or kale), and fish (usually salmon) or meat (usually chicken breast).

Mr Seek's last small meal of the day is a protein shake which he consumes at around 11pm right before he goes to bed. Rinse and repeat each day.

Mr Seek’s eating patterns is certainly a change from those of us who may even skip meals at times, much less stick to the conventional 3 meals a day.

"It's crazy and terribly boring, right?" the 35-year-old father-to-be says, somewhat apologetically.

Why He Started This Weight Loss Meal Plan

Mr Seek started to watch his diet shortly after he turned 30. "I was feeling sluggish and less energetic so I decided to make changes to what and how I eat."

The transformation, he says, was gradual and based on experimentation and research. But more importantly, the diet works for him.

"I feel less lethargic and it helps me stay in shape," says Mr Seek who is 1.73m tall and weighs 82 kg. 'Cheat days' are rare; festive seasons are no exceptions. With more time on his hands, he is even stricter about his meal plan.

Thus, should we all attempt to emulate Mr Seek and switch to a multiple-meal regimen to lose weight or stay in shape? What do the nutrition experts have to say?

Ms Charmaine Toh, a dietitian at the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics, says there is no evidence to determine whether eating three meals a day or having many smaller meals helps to burn fat faster.

But she says, "Smaller, more frequent, calorie-controlled meals allows for better blood sugar control which helps make one feel more energetic and experience fewer hunger pangs."

In addition, long intervals between meals can lead to a reduction in basal metabolic rate. This, Ms Toh says, may have evolved as a defence mechanism against starvation.

When the body is in 'starvation mode', it protects stored fat and instead uses lean tissue or muscle to provide it with some of the calories it needs to function. But don’t go switching your meal frequency and start eating small meals eight times a day just yet!

The Meal Matters, Not How Often You Are Supposed to Eat a Day

While a multiple-meal regimen may work for Mr Seek, what is more important than the number of meals a day is the type and quantity of food consumed, says Ms Toh. A fried piece of chicken won’t carry the same amount of calories as ¼ cup of black beans for example.

Ensure that your total calorie intake is within your caloric requirements for weight maintenance, weight loss or even for weight gain. It all depends on your needs.

Try starting your day with some Greek yoghurt or just a cup of plain yoghurt for breakfast and having a meal or snack every four to five hours during the day. It will provide your body with a steady supply of energy and help to prevent overeating.

And if a dwindling metabolism or unhealthy blood sugar levels are what you're concerned about, you can increase your metabolic rate by exercising more and increasing the amount of lean tissue you have. That’s exactly what Mr Seek, who exercises two hours every day, does.

He mixes and matches his exercise regime, combining aerobic workouts by sprinting up a hill several times and doing conditioning exercises at the gym. Generally, exercise and larger muscle mass increases basal metabolism, says Ms Toh.

In order not to alter metabolism in such a way that negatively impacts body composition, it is also crucial to match calorie intake with calorie needs.

Consider these words of wisdom from Mr Seek: "Don't jump on a diet fad because it's trendy. Eat sensibly and healthily to enable you to live the active life that you desire."

Speed It Up

One's basal metabolic rate can be revived, says dietitian Ms Charmaine Toh, who recommends the following My Healthy Plate concept:

  • Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with whole-grains
  • Fill a quarter of your plate with meat and other proteins
  • Use healthier oils—canola, sunflower and olive oil are recommended
  • Choose water over sugared sodas
  • Be active—adults should exercise 2.5 hours a week

Download the HealthHub app on Google Play or Apple Store to access more health and wellness advice at your fingertips.

Read these next: