“I don’t have time to eat 6 meals per day, I’m just too busy”
“I know myself, I will for sure overindulge if you make me eat so frequently”
“It feels like I just finished eating, do I really have to eat again?”
These are just a few of the comments and questions I’ve received countless times as a fitness and nutrition coach.
And I totally understand their questions and concerns.
Before we dive into the research and some of the numbers, I think it’s important to recognize where this phenomenon first came from.
So what made eating frequently so special in the first place?
It was first believed that frequent feedings were best in losing body fat and improving body composition because of a thing called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), which is the amount of energy expended after eating a meal in order to digest, absorb and dispose nutrients. Yes that’s right, you burn calories eating food. Even the fan favorites like nachos, pizza, burgers, chocolate and ice cream.
I think it helps to think of TEF as a tax. Roughly 10% of what you consume will be burned off simply by digesting and absorbing nutrients in each meal.
So from the outside it makes sense: eat smaller meals more frequently, avoid the dreaded “starvation mode,” keep your metabolism chugging along at a higher rate, burn more calories and, subsequently, more fat.
Or so we thought anyway.
The problem with this belief is that the TEF is dependent on the number of calories consumed in each meal, NOT meal frequency!
Consider this table I made for a sample 1500 kcal/day diet:
Remember the 10% TEF number I provided earlier and do the math that I neglected to do for you in my chart. You’ll find that a total of ~150 calories are burned no matter how many meals you eat; 3 or even upwards of 6.
It’s also important to note that not all macronutrients are burned off through thermogenesis the same:
- Carbohydrates: 5-15%
- Fats: 5-15%
- Protein: 20-35% (!!!)
It’s easy to see now why we recommend a high-protein diet for fat loss. It takes a lot more energy to digest and absorb dietary protein than carbs or fat. Not to mention increased satiety while in a caloric deficit and that protein can be used as a source of energy when needed. This should put the “a calorie is a calorie” argument to rest, as it is over-simplistic and fundamentally flawed. But I digress.
Brad Schoenfeld, Ph.D, CSCS is one of my favorite researchers in the field and someone I will reference to frequently throughout my future posts. He did an awesome study on the very same topic being discussed here. Here are a few bits from his research article, “Are Frequent Meals Beneficial for Body Composition” on his website, lookgreatnaked.com (lol):
The results of our analysis do not support a tangible benefit to eating small frequent meals on body composition as long as daily caloric intake and macronutrient content is similar.
There also is no evidence that the body goes into “starvation mode” when you go without food for more than a few hours as commonly claimed in fitness circles.
There are really 2 keys that are an absolute must in order for you to ensure continued progress towards your fat loss/improved body composition goals. Oddly enough, neither one involves how frequently you eat.
Key #1: Consistent protein intake that meets your individual needs. I can’t stress this enough, as most of the population underestimates/simply falls very far short of what is actually needed in order to reach adequate protein intake.
Key #2: A consistent negative energy balance is achieved (you consume less than you burn each day).
Bottomline: do what’s best and easiest for you and what your lifestyle allows. If 3 bigger meals is what you can afford to do, great. If you do better with 5-6 smaller meals, that’s fine too. Whatever the number that best suits you, it’s suggested you stay as consistent as possible – especially if you’re not currently engaged in a regular exercise routine.