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In the film “The Lord of the Rings,” the diminutive Pippin is dismayed when he learns the journey to save Middle Earth might require him to miss one of the hobbit's customary seven meals.
“What about breakfast?” Pippin moans. “What about second breakfast? What about elevensies? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? Supper?”
The scene elicits a laugh in a culture where three meals a day has long been the custom. But with fully a third of Americans classified as obese — and two thirds, overweight — some people are thinking it’s time for three-meals-a-day to become comedy, too.
Dr. Mark Mattson is among them. A neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland, he believes Americans should sharply reduce their calories. In a TED talk on fasting, Mattson challenges the value of daily breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“There are a lot of pressures to have that eating pattern,” Mattson said. “There’s a lot of money involved. The food industry: Are they going to make money if people skip breakfast like I did today? No, they’re going to lose money.”
He also blames pharmaceutical makers, who, he points out, don’t profit when people are healthy.
Why do we eat three meals a day?
“It isn’t that it’s the healthiest eating pattern,” Mattson said. “That’s my opinion, but I think there’s a lot of evidence to support it.”
The evidence includes a U.S. Department of Agriculture study of volunteers who ate either one meal or three meals a day for eight weeks. At the conclusion, the “one-mealers” had lower cholesterol and blood pressure and had lost weight. And there are numerous studies that suggest restricted calories result in longer life, at least among rats.
‘MEANT’ TO BE HUNGRY?
The ranks of people who primarily eat one meal a day include “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams, champion jockey Russell Baze, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus and the novelist Lionel Shriver, who has said, “We are meant to be hungry.”
Not everyone agrees with the practice. Natalie Wingfield is a licensed professional counselor, specializing in eating disorders, in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
“Every time you skip breakfast, or any other meal, you increase the chances of overeating later in the day because your body is being deprived," Wingfield said. "Additionally, eating only one meal a day leads to unhealthy dips in blood sugar, which impact mood and physical health."
For people genetically disposed to disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, the practice could ultimately be deadly.
Besides the physical components of deprivation, she said, there’s also the emotional factor.
“You feel really bad if you don’t eat all day," Wingfield said. "That’s your body trying to tell you something.”
But Mattson points out that most sedentary people feel terrible if they try to run three miles without preparation. Likewise, changes in diet should be done over time, and soon "you find that on the days you don’t eat so much, you’re more productive,” he said.
That’s been the experience of Adams, creator of the comic strip “Dilbert,” who details his high-protein, low-calorie system in his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.”
Adams typically eats a protein bar at 6 a.m., a piece of cheese at 9 a.m., a protein shake at 11 a.m., and then afternoon snacks of fruit or vegetables, with dinner around 7, if he eats it at all.
“Advice doesn’t work because no two situations are the same, and I’m not a doctor," he said. "But I do think you can look at the experience of others and find useful patterns that might inform your own plan."
A.J. Cummings is a doctor, and, like Adams, doesn’t believe one size fits all when it comes to eating. He has been eating just once a day for years, and it works for him, both in terms of nutrition and in the demands of his practice in aesthetic and regenerative medicine in Peoria, Illinois. In the morning, Cummings has coffee, and he drinks water or diet soda during the day and may have some nuts or a banana, then eats whatever he wants for dinner — with one caveat.
“I hate salads, and I hate vegetables, so I make myself eat them first, and I eat as much as I can stand before eating anything else,” he said. The practice keeps his weight in check — he’s 6 feet, 161 pounds — and encourages him to be thoughtful about what he does eat.
Brian Pfeiffer also developed the one-meal-a-day habit because of a job. A paramedic for 27 years, he had an unorthodox work schedule that demanded unorthodox meal times: “It was just easier to just eat dinner,” he said.
When he left emergency medicine, the eating pattern stuck, and Pfeiffer, who now runs a tea company in western New York, drinks coffee or tea in the morning, and “maybe a couple of bites of egg, here and there” but that’s usually it until he eats dinner with his wife in the evening. He admits, “I probably eat a little more than the average person a dinnertime.” But he feels great and his weight is stable at 185.
A LEGACY OF AGRARIAN SOCIETIES
“Fasting does good things for the brain,” Mattson said in the TED talk in which he recommends a little known book by novelist Upton Sinclair. In “The Fasting Cure,” published in 1911, Sinclair talks of his childhood in “a well-to-do family in which good eating was regarded as a social grace and the principal interest in life.”
That's another barrier to change, as eating is the ritual around which we order our lives. And growing body of research shows that children who eat with their families each night perform better in school, are more likely to graduate from high school and are less likely to be obese. In this sense, the consumption of calories is ancillary to the social aspects of the meal.
Eating at set, socially agreed upon times, however, throws out what may be the most important, and most ignored, guideline for eating: Eating when we are hungry. But in America, the land of plenty, it's hard to know. When people snack all day, they never get hungry.
Dr. Paul Freedman is a Yale University professor and the editor of “Food: The History of Taste.” While three meals are a construct of agrarian societies, he believes the model still works, and that our obesity problem is not the number of meals, but the perpetual grazing.
“Americans eat more between meals than other people do. We are consuming calories all day. In my opinion, the least of the problem is the actual number of meals,” Freedman said.
While research about improving and extending life through restricting calories seems cutting edge, many of the principles are in Sinclair’s 1911 book.
“I have found a new state of being, a potentiality of life; a sense of lightness and cleanness and joyfulness, such as I did not know could exist in the human body,” Sinclair wrote.
Mattson said as much in his TED talk, suggesting that people would be surprised at how alert they will feel if they transition to one meal a day.
“Try it out,” he suggests. “You can just play around with it.”