Meal Frequency/Timing Doesn't Matter, But Calories Do....Like A Lot

There is a lot of confusing advice out there surrounding "optimal" meal frequency and how it affects your body composition.  The most pervasive myth in nutrition is that you must be eating 5-6 small meals a day to "stoke the metabolic fire" or something along those lines.  Broscience recommends eating every 2-3hrs to prevent muscle tissue breakdown and going into 'starvation mode'. The truth is that although it's not inherently 'bad' to take this approach, research has conclusively proven that it doesn't matter whether you eat 3 meals a day or 10.  It always comes down to overall calorie (and to a lesser extent macro: protein, fat, carbs....but mostly calorie) intake over the course of the day/week.

plateclock

Here's what you need to know:

  • The research does NOT support the idea that eating 6 small meals increases metabolism.
  • There is NO such thing as starvation mode, well, unless you are actually starving yourself.  Don't do that.
  • Your body burns calories through digestion via a process known as the thermic effect of food or TEF.
  • Calories and macronutrient (protein, fat, carbohydrate) intake is the most important aspect of fat loss.
  • Your muscles will not breakdown and you will metabolism will not stop if you miss a meal.

The Myths

Myth: The intuitive belief is that when you go without eating for long period of time (e.g. over 3 hours) your body will go into "starvation mode" in order to conserve energy.  It is easy to accept this because rationally, it just makes sense.  If you want to burn fat you must keep your metabolism, well, burning fat.

The truth: There is no valid research or studies that actually prove there is any advantage at all for increasing meal frequency.

Myth: Another belief that keeps this myth alive is your body burns more calories through the thermic effect of food when you eat frequent, small meals.  Although TEF is a real thing and you do burn calories during digestion it is flawed to believe that 3 meals is any different than 6 meals.

The truth: Let's say that both person A and person B are trying to lose weight and aiming to consume 1,800 calories per day.  Person A eats 6 meals at 300cal each and person B eats 3 meals at 600cal each.  If the TEF is 10% of calories consumed at each meal, person A will burn an extra 30cal per meal and person B will burn an extra 60cal per meal.  At the end of the day, they will both have burned 180cal through TEF.  Exactly the same.  I love maths.

Myth: Okay, so what about hunger?  Well the belief here is that after a large meal (especially a carby one) your insulin will spike and then crash causing the release of the 'hunger hormone, ghrelin.  Frequent meals are purported to counteract these spikes and hormone release and prevent hunger pangs.

The truth: Good in theory but bad in science.  Here are 2 studies (here and here) that show that there is no difference in hunger/hormones whether you eat 6 meals a day or 3.  It is important to note that eating few than 3-4 meals a day may in fact affect hunger and hormones.

What to do for 'real' fat loss success...

  • The most important factor when it comes to a healthy body composition and fat loss is overall calorie consumption.  If this isn't in balance, nothing will work.  Period.
  • Another extremely important factor for many is consistency.  I have found that those who plan their meals and stick to a routine tend to see the most success.
  • It's best to experiment to see what will work best for you.  Typically, the best approach to meal frequency is one that fits your lifestyle.
  • To increase satiety or feeling of being full, try increasing your protein and water intake.
  • As always, eat real food (what your grandparents would have recognized) and hit your calorie and macronutrient totals.  High protein and veggies seems to work EXTREMELY well for most people.

For more information, check out this in-depth critique of the research by nutrition wizard, Alan Aragon.

Disclaimer: I try to make sure that the information I share and my approach with clients always reflect the latest research.  I will be the first to admit when I am wrong as new studies come out and scrap what I have done in the past in favor of a better way.  I actually LOVE to be proven wrong as this means that I have found a better way to keep improving! :-)