Is There One Right Way to Eat?
A recent study compared two groups of obese individuals: one group assigned to eat three larger meals per day without snacks, and one group assigned to eat smaller meals every two to three hours. At their six month follow-up, researchers found that while those who ate more frequently reported lower levels of hunger throughout the day, they did not end up taking in fewer calories or lose more weight than those eating larger, less frequent meals (Bachman & Raynor, 2012).
These results are not surprising. In our CBT for weight loss and maintenance program at the Beck Institute, we've found that chronic dieters initially hold dysfunctional beliefs. For example, they often are certain that there is just one "right" way to balance meals and snacks. They continually search for the magic bullet: the perfect combination of foods consumed according to the perfect schedule that will allow them to lose weight, easily, and keep it off permanently. Without this magic bullet, they tend to believe that success will be nearly impossible. It is important for chronic dieters to change these faulty, maladaptive beliefs.
When we first introduce chronic dieters to the skill of "eating according to a schedule," they are often confused. This skill is contrary to popular lore that encourages a belief that is actually maladaptive for chronic dieters-that is, that people should eat when they're hungry and refrain from eating when they are not hungry. Our approach is different. We help dieters create and learn to follow an individualized eating schedule. Why? Because, time after time, chronic dieters confuse hunger with a number of other physiological or emotional states. They experience an urge to eat when they are feeling thirsty, stressed, bored, tired, or upset. Or when they are in a social setting where others are eating; when they see or smell food; when they just think about food. Many dieters simply cannot rely on their sense of "hunger" (which actually becomes confused with any desire to eat) to determine when to eat. So instead of teaching them the "right" way to schedule their meals and snacks, we help them figure out an individual schedule that is reasonable, practical, and maintainable for life. The precise schedule our dieters select to guide their eating is actually less important than the skills we teach them to adhere to that schedule.
When we begin working on this skill, many dieters choose to follow an eating schedule that consists of eating three meals and three snacks. As they progress and master important cognitive behavioral skills (such as tolerating cravings), they often choose to experiment with adjusting their eating schedules-especially when they find that they just don't need to be eating as frequently throughout the day. Finally, they begin to grasp the concept that the number or timing of their meals and snacks is not the crucial component to weight loss. Instead, being able to follow a schedule that is healthy, reasonable, and consistently maintainable is what helps them lose weight and keep it off.
As dieters become adept at the skill of eating according to a schedule, they discover they no longer have to struggle through each day combatting their urges to eat. The experience is actually quite liberating. They prove to themselves that if it's not time to eat, they can refrain from eating. This relieves them from the burden of having to make spontaneous food decisions and exert willpower at any given moment. Ultimately, we have found (and research indicates) that there is no one "right" way to eat. When dieters find a maintainable schedule that works for them, they've found the way that's right for them.
Bachman, J. L., & Raynor, H. A. (2012). Effects of manipulating eating frequency during a behavioral weight loss intervention: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Obesity 20, 985-92.