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How Often Should You Eat?

Surprise! You don’t need to eat every three hours to stay healthy. In fact, maybe you shouldn’t.

By
Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N,
February 25, 2009
Episode #032

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In last week’s show, I debunked the myth that eating more frequently keeps your metabolism revved up. Not only does skipping meals not shut down your metabolism, but there may be some benefits to going a bit longer between meals.

As I explained in last week’s show, going for four or five hours—or even longer—between meals will not affect your metabolism one whit. In fact, there are some good reasons to go longer than just a few hours between meals.

It takes about three hours for your body to finish digesting a meal. If you eat every two or three hours, as many experts now advise, your body will constantly be in what nutritionists call the “fed state.” This simply means that you are always in the process of digesting food.

If, on the other hand, you don’t eat again, you’ll go into something we call the “post-absorptive” state after about three hours. Several interesting things happen in the post-absorptive state, which continues for another 12 to 18 hours if you don’t eat again (for a quick tip about how beverages fit into this equation, head over here).

First, you begin tapping into your body’s stored energy reserves to run your engine. Your hormone levels adjust to shift your body out of fat-storage mode and into fat-burning mode. Hanging out in the post-absorptive state also reduces free-radical damage and inflammation, increases the production of anti-aging hormones, and promotes tissue repair. And, just to reinforce what we talked about last week, your metabolic rate remains unchanged.

But what about your blood sugar?

You’ll often hear people say that eating small, frequent meals helps to keep your blood sugar levels steady. And it does: It keeps your blood sugar steadily high.

Whoever said that your blood sugar levels were supposed to remain constant throughout the day, anyway? They’re not. They are supposed to rise after meals, as food is digested and converted into glucose, and then fall back to baseline as the glucose is taken up by the cells and used for energy or stored for future use.

Having your blood sugar level fall to baseline is not bad for you! In fact, having your blood sugar closer to baseline for more of the day helps to protect you from developing diabetes. Now, of course, it is possible for blood sugar to get too low. This is known as hypoglycemia. A lot of people self-diagnose themselves with this condition, but very few of them actually have it. Diabetics using insulin or folks with a medical condition called reactive hypoglycemia need to be careful about letting their blood sugar get too low.

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