How many meals should you eat everyday?
I remember when I was a big advocate of eating 5-6 meals per day. Like clockwork, I’d eat a meal every 2-3 hours. It was something I advised my clients on for years, too.
About five years ago, I started to dig into this idea more and abandoned the notion altogether when I started experimenting with intermittent fasting (something I still continue to this day).
Why did I stop eating 5-6 meals per day and stop giving that advice?
It’s based on faulty research and assumptions.
Now, recent research suggests that eating more often might make it harder to lose weight and easier to pack on pounds.
How did the small meals/grazing method go from the ultimate fat loss solution to maybe not-so-great?
It was a misunderstanding of how our metabolism works.
The foundation of the entire argument is that eating “fires up your metabolism.” It’s true. But it’s not the whole truth.
Every time you put food in your mouth, you burn calories. This is known as the thermic effect of food. Of all the foods you eat, protein is the most metabolically expensive—it costs more energy to breakdown, digest, and put to use than either carbohydrates or fat. Up to 30% of the calories you eat from protein are burned during the digestion and processing of those foods. This percentage drops down to about 6 and 4% for carbohydrates and fats, respectively.
The research on meal frequency.
If eating requires energy, then eating more frequently would require more energy, thus increasing metabolism. This logic is how the multiple meals per day movement started. There’s a lot of assumptions in this ideology and the body is not that simple.
The reality is that when it comes to fat loss (muscle gain is different), your body doesn’t care about how many meals you eat.
The thermic effect of food is directly proportional to caloric intake and the foods you eat, and if caloric intake and food choice is the same at the end of the day, there will be no metabolic difference between eating six meals or three.
Canadian researchers wrote a published study that was literally titled: “Increased Meal Frequency Does Not Promote Greater Weight Loss Who Were Prescribed an 8-week Equi-Energetic Energy-Restricted Diet.” In fact, as long as the total calories are the same, you can eat ten meals or one meal and you’ll still get the same metabolic effect.
If you’re told to eat 2,000 calories per day, it doesn’t matter if it’s separated into five 400-calorie meals or a few smaller feasts. However, the composition of those meals does matter. Remember, proteins, carbs and fats are all metabolized differently, so the combination of these nutrients are still important, but how often you consume those foods might not matter as much as you thought.
Which brings us to recent research suggesting that not only are frequent meals not the “ultimate solution” they were positioned as, but eating more frequently without tracking calories might cause you to gain weight. From a practical standpoint, it makes sense. When you’re eating more frequently, the risk of eating too much food is increased because there are more times in the day when you can slip up or fall into “mindless eating.” Also, research shows that most people significantly underestimate the number of calories they consume.
If you don’t like calorie tracking (who does?), eating less frequently, with meals that are packed with protein, might be your best bet for weight loss.
If you enjoy eating more frequently and track your calories appropriately, then there is less concern about overeating and you can achieve weight loss that way, too.