The Lowdown on Meal Frequency
The Lowdown on Meal Frequency
What’s the deal? To meet your fitness or weight loss goals, should you eat smaller, more frequent meals or stick to the traditional three squares per day? Well, it should come as no surprise that there is a lot of debate in the fitness community about this topic. In fact, the microcosm that encompasses nutrition experts, weight loss experts, and competitive athletes has suffered a little brainwashing when it comes to meal frequency.
Many experts will tell you that eating six to seven meals each day is better than eating just three to four if you want to boost your metabolism and burn fat. What a lot of these folks don’t realize is that these beliefs are based on outdated studies done over 50 years ago! It’s also information that has been schlepped by weight loss product companies and nutrition experts – and what do you think they have to gain from that? Cha-ching!
The truth of the matter is that there is no strong evidence to suggest that increasing or decreasing meal frequency has any metabolic benefits, including increasing lean muscle mass and losing body fat. Let’s break down how metabolism really works and just how you may be wrecking yours by buying into antiquated ideas about smaller more frequent meals being the key to your health, wellness, and fitness success.
The Scoop on Energy Expenditures
There are four components that contribute to your energy expenditure throughout the day:
- Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
- The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
- Energy Expended through Exercise (EEx)
- Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)
Here’s the thing, If increasing or decreasing the frequency of your meals really had any impact on your metabolism or body composition, then it should impact one of these factors. But, that’s not something supported by the research – at all!
What do we mean? Well, let’s take EEx and NEAT for example. If increasing or decreasing meal frequency really had an impact on metabolism free from following a weight loss plan or a reduction in calories, then one of these factors should be impacted. But the research doesn’t support it. In fact, the only real difference in calories burned is done through the simple act of physically moving more frequently. More movement throughout the day simply adds up to more calories burned. Increasing meal frequency certainly doesn’t look like the magic metabolic bullet that people seem to think it is.
Now let’s discuss BMR. BMR is pretty darned important, as it’s the number of calories burned by the body at rest and this is directly proportional to an individual’s lean muscle mass or fat-free mass (FFM). Therefore, many people look to build muscle for the simple fact that it helps increase BMR which positively impacts weight loss and transform body composition. In research, building FFM to increase BMR isn’t impacted at all by a change in meal frequency. In fact, the research finds no difference between smaller, more frequent meals and larger, less frequent ones. So, continue to work on building muscle to impact your BMR, but don’t count on meal frequency to help out!
TEF, the last factor that impacts your metabolism, is the amount of energy beyond BMR your body expends on processing and storing the food you eat. Do smaller, more frequent meals give it a boost? You can probably guess that the answer here is no. There is some research that suggests a small bump is given to TEF as it impacts BMR immediately following exercise, but it was a study done on untrained folks. So, it’s not info that can be extrapolated to young people or athletes in training. While there’s always more research to be done, as it stands now you can’t depend on a change of meal frequency to impact your metabolism as it relates to TEF and BMR.
In our experience, when people change the way they’re eating, they expect results. Many people worry that changing a diet will make them ravenous and “hangry” (i.e. hungry + angry = hangry) before meals, making them feel deprived. That’s not a place anyone wants to be. When people switch to smaller, more frequent meals, they seem to escape hangry feelings, which makes them think that what they’re doing is working! Plus, for the highly trained athletes among us, smaller more frequent meals help to sneak in extra calories to help meet performance demands and fitness goals. In this way, smaller, more frequent meals certainly have their place – we don’t discount them completely. We take hangry feelings very seriously.
The biggest problem with meal frequency lies with expectations. If you’re expecting to change the frequency of the calories you eat and have it work miracles for your body composition or metabolism, then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The research to date simply doesn’t support it.
What We Think
What we want you to take away from this is that you have to find a way of eating that works for you. What type of diet plan works best for your goals, with your lifestyle, and with the way you like to eat? Your body is a little bit like Pavlov’s dog – it will learn when you like to eat and start to expect it. Once you’ve created an eating pattern, then you need to feed your body in accordance with that pattern. Like exercises and/or movement patterns, some are more effective and beneficial than others based on the needs, goals, and limitations associated with each individual. Making a dramatic shift will probably only serve to make you grumpy and it won’t get you any closer to your goals. So, why put yourself through all that? Ask yourself what works best for you and once you have the answer, go with it!
Cameron, J.D. Cyr, M.J. & Doucet, E. (2010). Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/40037138_Increased_meal_frequency_does_not_promote_greater_weight_loss_in_subjects_who_were_prescribed_an_8-week_equi-energetic_energy-restricted_diet
Klein, D. Meal Frequency and Weight Loss – Is there Such a Thing as Stoking the Metabolism. PTQ 2.2 NSCA.com. Retrieved from https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/ptq/meal_frequency_and_weight_loss/
La Bounty, P.M, Campbell, B., Wilson, J., Galvan, E., Berardi, J., Kleiner, S., Kreider, R., Stout, J., Ziefenfuss, T., Spano, M., Smith, A. & Antonio, J. (2011). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: meal frequency. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 8(4). Retrieved from https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-8-4