By Dr. Mercola
There are no “quick fixes” when it comes to losing weight, but if you’re looking for a way to “trick” your stomach into getting “smaller,” try eating smaller meals throughout the day.
The science is split on whether or not eating smaller meals more frequently will help you lose weight, but what it will do is make your stomach less stretchy, which in turn will help you to feel fuller when eating less food.
To be clear, it’s unknown if the actual size of your stomach can change. Most people’s stomachs hold about one liter of liquid, whether you’re 150 pounds or 300 pounds.1 However, it has an ability to stretch and expand when you eat a meal.
If you regularly eat large meals, your stomach’s distensibility (or ability to become stretched) will increase to accommodate the food. If you instead eat only small amounts at a time, your stomach’s distensibility will decrease.
Four to Five Weeks of Eating Smaller Meals May Change Your Stomach
If you want to shrink the capacity of your stomach, try eating smaller meals for at least four to five weeks. In a study of obese individuals, those who followed a restricted diet for four weeks experienced reductions in stomach capacity.2 As reported by Greatist:3
“Think of your stomach like a muscle. When it's filled with large meals three times a day, the distensibility (the scientific term for the amount your stomach walls can stretch) increases — just like your biceps would get bigger if you were working them out three times a day, [Atif] Iqbal [M.D., medical director of the Digestive Care Center at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center] says.
And when you head in the other direction — eating many small meals throughout the day — your stomach's capacity goes down, says Rebekah Gross, M.D., a gastroenterologist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center.
After about a month and a half of eating smaller meals more frequently, you'll naturally feel full with less food, and your body will send signals to stop eating sooner …”
When you eat smaller meals more frequently, you’re not necessarily eating less food, just reducing the amount at each sitting, which makes it easier to stick with in the long term.
Drinking Water or Carbonated Beverages May Expand Your Stomach Capacity
Competitive eaters often drink large amounts of water during competitions because it helps the food to leave their stomach faster so they can eat even more.
Even during a regular meal, if you drink a lot of water or carbonated beverages, the excess liquid can cause your stomach to expand, leaving room for you to eat more food.4
This expansion is only temporary, fortunately, as is the stretching that occurs if you binge on a large meal (for instance on Thanksgiving or Christmas). The stretching is the reason why your pants feel tighter after you eat, then return to feeling normal after your food has been digested.
While this won’t likely lead to weight gain if it occurs only once in a while, binge eating can wreak havoc on your insulin and blood sugar levels, especially if your meal included a lot of carbs.
Dr. Holly Lofton, director of Weight Management at NYU Langone Medical Center, told CBS News that after eating a large, carb-heavy meal:5
“Your body's glucose level shoots up really quickly and that causes an insulin surge. This insulin surge then makes your blood sugar drop rather quickly as well. It can lead to a relative hypoglycemia; you experience that low hypoglycemia as hunger."
This may explain why you feel you can’t eat another bite after a big meal but then become ravenously hungry again by your next meal.
Can You Eat Smaller Meals While Intermittent Fasting?
I believe there may be some benefit to eating smaller meals more frequently as it will likely help keep your blood sugar more balanced throughout the day. Research shows that eating more often leads to a reduction in total insulin secretion, an improvement in insulin resistance and better blood sugar control.6
Remember, optimizing your insulin regulation is of major importance, as it has a significant long-term impact not just on your weight but also on your overall health and chronic disease risk.
For those of you engaging in intermittent fasting, you may be wondering how increasing your meal frequency can fit into this method of eating. Our ancestors did not have access to food 24/7, and from a historical perspective it appears your body was designed for intermittent periods of fasting.
The downside to eating more frequently is that when you consistently eat every few hours and never miss a meal, your body becomes very inefficient at burning fat as a fuel, and this is where the trouble starts.
It's important to recognize that, with few exceptions, you cannot burn body fat if you have other fuel available, and if you're supplying your body with carbohydrates every few hours, your body has no need to dive into your fat stores.
Eating fewer meals and timing those meals to occur closer together is one of the most effective strategies I've found to trigger your body to more effectively burn fat for fuel, and normalize your insulin and leptin sensitivity. If you’re insulin resistant, intermittent fasting is especially important.
You can still eat smaller meals more often, but only eat within a window of six to eight consecutive hours each day, and avoid food for at least three hours before bedtime.
As long as you restrict your eating to this window, you can choose between having two regular meals or three or four smaller meals. If you're not insulin resistant, intermittent fasting is not as crucial, but may still be beneficial.
If you're among the minority of Americans who do not struggle with insulin resistance, then my general recommendation is to simply avoid eating at least three hours before bedtime. That automatically allows you to "fast" for at least 11 hours or longer depending on if and when you eat breakfast.
Eating Slower Is Another Trick to Benefit Your Waistline
If your goal is to shrink your stomach (i.e. trim your waistline), slowing down your eating is another simple “trick” to try. Research shows you may consume fewer calories over the course of a meal when you eat slowly.7
It takes time (generally about 20 minutes) for your brain to signal to your stomach that you’re full, and this may explain why one study found people reported feeling fuller when they ate slowly.8
They also ended up consuming about 10 percent fewer calories when they ate at a slow pace, and presumably chewed slower, as opposed to when they were rushing.
Prior studies have found that eating more slowly and chewing your food more completely led to decreased intake, better absorption of nutrients, better appetite regulation, and improved satiety.
When you eat quickly, your body doesn't have the time to go through its natural signaling process, which involves a variety of hormones and feedback loops between your gut and your brain.
Hormones that tell you when you've had adequate food are produced while you're eating, but, as mentioned, it takes a bit of time for this to occur.
If you eat too quickly, you can easily overeat before your body has a chance to signal that you've had enough. Interestingly, the stretch receptors in your stomach are intricately involved in this signaling process. According to the Harvard Health Blog:9
"Stretch receptors in the stomach are activated as it fills with food or water; these signal the brain directly through the vagus nerve that connects gut and brainstem. Hormonal signals are released as partially digested food enters the small intestine.
One example is cholecystokinin (CCK), released by the intestines in response to food consumed during a meal. Another hormone, leptin, produced by fat cells, is an adiposity signal that communicates with the brain about long-range needs and satiety, based on the body's energy stores.
Research suggests that leptin amplifies the CCK signals, to enhance the feeling of fullness. Other research suggests that leptin also interacts with the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain to produce a feeling of pleasure after eating. The theory is that, by eating too quickly, people may not give this intricate hormonal cross-talk system enough time to work."
Are You Trying to Shed Excess Belly Fat?
It’s important to understand that “shrinking” your stomach or decreasing its ability to expand when you eat your meals is not the same thing as losing belly fat. The benefits of reducing belly fat go far beyond aesthetics. Abdominal fat — the visceral fat that deposits around your internal organs — releases proteins and hormones that can cause inflammation, which in turn can damage arteries and enter your liver, affecting how your body breaks down sugars and fats.
The chronic inflammation associated with visceral fat accumulation can trigger a wide range of systemic diseases linked with metabolic syndrome. To shed abdominal fat, you need to reduce your overall body fat. Diet is key here, as poor diet promotes fat accumulation and causes your body to hold on to excess fat. In terms of your food choices, the following two are foundational for successful weight loss:
- Reduce or eliminate added sugar from your diet. This includes all forms of sugar and fructose, whether refined or "all-natural" such as agave or honey, as well as all grains (including organic ones), as they quickly break down to sugar in your body. As a general rule, if you're insulin resistant (and you likely are if you're struggling with abdominal fat) keep your total sugar/fructose intake below 15 grams per day.
If your weight is normal and you have no other signs of insulin resistance, the recommended daily amount is no more than 25 grams a day.
- Increase healthy fats in your diet. Following a low-fat diet is a sure-fire way to sabotage your weight loss goals. To shed fat, you actually need to eat healthy saturated fats, and plenty of them. Most who are insulin resistant will benefit from 50 to 85 percent of their daily calories in the form of healthy fat until their insulin resistance resolves.
This includes avocados, butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk, raw dairy, organic pastured egg yolks, coconuts and coconut oil, unheated organic nut oils, raw nuts, and grass-fed meats, as well as animal-based omega-3s.
Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) found in nuts, olive oil, and avocados have also been shown to boost abdominal fat loss.
For more healthy diet details, I suggest you review my Optimized Nutrition Plan, which is a comprehensive and step-by-step guide to help you make health-promoting food and lifestyle choices. The third dietary key for shedding belly fat (and fat in general) is intermittent fasting. As mentioned above, this is really one of the most effective ways I've found to address excess weight, as it "resets" your body to start using fat rather than sugar as its primary fuel.