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Small, Frequent Meals are Better for Your Metabolism

By Sheena Faherty
December 16, 2014

Big feasts and too many treats don’t just pack on extra pounds. Duke research finds that overeating can also change your metabolism – meaning how the cells in your body process the food you consume – and that can lead to chronic health problems including diabetes. Smaller, more frequent meals are optimal, the researchers say.

Burning the Right Fuel at the Right Time

The human body relies on two main food-related fuel sources for energy – carbohydrates and fat. Cells in the body make decisions on which to burn depending on what is available. Stored fat fills the need when you’re hungry, while carbs provide quick energy after a meal or during exercise. When cells make the right decision at the right time, blood sugar levels maintain normal ranges. 

However, when the energy supply exceeds demand – either because of overeating or lack of exercise – cells become confused about which fuel to choose. According to Deborah Muoio, PhD, a Duke researcher who studies metabolic diseases, there is growing evidence to suggest a link between cells choosing the wrong fuel source, and diseases associated with poor blood sugar control, such as diabetes.

Overeating Jams the System

The human body has always been able to adapt and function during periods of feeding and fasting. That changes when the body is bombarded by a steady flow of carbohydrates and fats in the form of overeating. Cells no longer understand the signals being sent to them, and become confused about which fuel to burn and when.

Dr. Muoio uses the analogy of a rush-hour traffic jam to explain what’s happening in the body.

“When people eat too much and too often, there is more traffic in the form of carbon molecules [what we know as food],” she said. “When there are more carbon molecules, they can collide and cause damage to the cells.”

When traffic signals that allow cars to travel smoothly malfunction (or in human terms, when we overeat), it “exacerbates the traffic problem and can push cells into a state of metabolic gridlock,” she said.

Exercise Makes a Difference

Exercise offers many health benefits, although researchers are still investigating exactly what role it plays. What’s becoming clear, says Dr. Muoio, is that exercise increases the demand for the excess food being consumed.

“Physical activity can clear the metabolic highways because carbon molecules are burned at a much higher rate,” Dr. Muoio said. “The carbon molecules are no longer colliding with each other, and are better poised to cope with a new supply of fuels.”

In addition to weight loss, Dr. Muoio’s research suggests that brief periods of exercise can have immediate benefits on blood sugar control, lowering cholesterol levels, and reducing diabetes risk.

Smaller, Frequent Eating Keeps Your Body Running Smoothly

In addition to exercise, Dr. Muoio recommends grazing—eating smaller, more frequent meals—to keep your metabolism running smoothly.

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