Meal Frequency

December 13th, 2009 by

I see a lot of people in the fitness industry saying you have to eat 6 meals a day. Is so many meals optimal? Do I have to eat 6x/day?

This tends to be one of those long-held-to beliefs that says that the more often you eat, the more fired up your metabolism is. In that context, no, it’s not.

Metabolism is determined by the total energy intake, not by how many meals you get it in.

2000 in 4 meals vs 2000 in 8 meals is still 2000 calories and your body still has to spend the energy to process that same 2000 calories.

Myth! Myth! Myth! (and one with much research to show it – 24-hr indirect calorimetry, etc.) Some of the intermittent fasting guys, Brad Pilon and his Eat Stop Eat program for example have gone into more scientific detail explaining why meal frequency doesn’t hold any magical fat-loss benefits.

The idea stems from something called the Thermic Effect of Food (one part of total metabolism), which is basically the energy cost to digest incoming energy (this differs for the various macronutrients). So the idea is that the more often you eat, the more TEF goes up and the more metabolism goes up. The problem with this is that it’s a bit of a misrepresentation as TEF is actually correlated with the amount of calories in the meal, and therefore total calories at the end of the day.

Rather, it seems that an inconsistent meal frequency is what has potential negative effects.

So from a direct fat-loss standpoint, there isn’t really an advantage to 6 meals vs say 4-5. There are however other advantages you could potentially argue for:

More stable blood sugar
Control of hunger
When calories are very high (easier to get them in with more feedings rather than less)

And subsequently, dietary compliance, which is the key to any diet.

There’s no disadvantage to a high meal frequency that I can think of, so if you prefer it, stick with it. If you find it hard, you can cut back on the meal number and just make your meals a bit bigger.

(Note – that doesn’t mean all your calories in one meal per day.)

Meal frequency should be assessed on an individual basis and meal number for the day should be decided based on what best fits into a person’s lifestyle.

Ultimately what matters the most is the sustainability of your nutritional strategy. If a lower meal frequency gives you a better chance of successfully following your plan, then that’s what’s best for you.