There are a lot of terrible trainers out there. They might say something like, “Eat meals more frequently throughout the day to elevate your metabolism more than eating fewer big meals.”
At first glance, this seems to make a lot of sense. But really it’s a bunch of B-S.
Your metabolism is elevated after you eat a meal. The number of calories burned processing the food you eat is called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).
These terrible trainers even say it is also beneficial for building muscle because eating small meals more frequently will prevent your body from going into “starvation mode”. Really educated, huh?
Since your metabolism increases after a meal, eating meals more frequently must help you melt fat off and build muscle, right?
This false understanding came from early studies (1986) showing increased metabolism in dogs when meals were eaten more frequently. Follow up studies even showed the same thing in humans. (1-2)
Since the groundbreaking study done on K-9’s (sarcasm), there have been a lot of studies done in controlled condition on humans.
Meal Frequency and Metabolic Rate
I hate to break it to all the terrible trainers out there, but research does not support the claim that more frequent meals increase metabolism more than eating fewer big meals:
- In one study thirteen people, two males and eleven females, were fed the number of calories they needed in either two meals per day or seven meals per day over 2-day intervals. On the second day metabolism was calculated. They concluded there were no differences for the amount of energy used in 24 hours between the two groups. (3)
- One study even showed that whether you gorge yourself with 1 meal per day or eat 17 meals per day there is no difference in the total metabolic rate. (4)
- The evidence is clear. How often you eat doesn’t matter. (3-9)
Whether you eat two 1,000 calorie meals or eight 250 calorie meals (that’s 2,000 calories in each scenario), the total calories burned processing the meals is about 200 calories.
Studies estimate the number of calorie burned processing a meal (TEF) to be about 10% of the total calories consumed, no matter how many meals you eat.
The Thermic Effect of Food is directly proportional to the caloric content of the meal.
(Chart courtesy of rockstar Brad “The Hypertrophy Expert” Schoenfeld)
Meal frequency and appetite
There are some studies showing that spacing meals throughout the day can make you less hungry. There are also some that show that it doesn’t make a difference.
It’s pretty clear that high protein diets help regulate hunger throughout the day. (10-12)
However, some studies show that meal frequency doesn’t help control hunger (10-11), while others show that it did help control hunger on a calorie restricted diet. (12)
This means it’s up to your personal preference how frequently you eat. Forget the dogma and B-S you’ve been fed regarding this. It’s up to what works best for you.
You can even change your eating pattern if you’d like. Sticking to an eating pattern long enough, we can dictate and control our hunger cycles. (13) The body will adapt to whatever schedule you expose it to.
Figure out what works best for you psychologically.
I don’t eat breakfast. I eat a massive lunch. I eat a massive dinner. It’s what works best for me.
Everyone is different. Eat however often works best for you. Experiment.
Meal Frequency, Weight Loss, and Body Composition
These two rockstars recently dug through tons of research to do a thorough review (meta-analysis) of the effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition.
Schoenfeld wrote summarized the results it for people not quite as smart as himself:
“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.” (14)
There are still some words in there you might not understand. That’s how brilliant those guys are.
The Bottom Line On Meal Frequency.
Decide how many meals you want to eat per day based on your personal preference. Decide what works best for your schedule. Experiment. See what works best for you. Then stick with it.
If your trainer has ever given you any of this false information, you can now feel great that you know more about this subject than him/her.
Mentioned in this article: Mike Matthews, Brad Schoenfeld, and Alan Aragon.