Meal Frequency: How much does it matter?
I’m sure you’ve heard at some point that in order to enhance fat loss and better maintain your weight, it’s better to eat small meals more frequently than it is to eat a few, larger meals.
This is a fairly common claim. But just how much scientific evidence is out there to back it up?
There is evidence that frequent macronutrient intake may be beneficial to anabolism (or constructive metabolism).
And several studies show that protein synthesis and accumulation are heightened when protein-containing meals are consumed frequently throughout the day.
A recent meta-analysis of 327 studies, published by Nutrition Reviews, even found that increased meal frequency appeared to be positively associated with reductions in fat mass and body fat percentage as well as an increase in FFM (fat-free mass).
However…and yes unfortunately there is a however, sensitivity analysis data showed that these findings were for the most part the product of a single study, therefore casting doubt as to whether more frequent meals actually lead to beneficial effects on body composition.
Basically, even after analyzing 327 studies, there still isn't anything close to a consensus on whether we are metabolically better off eating three regular meals a day or spreading that out into five or six smaller meals.
Where the Misunderstanding Lies
The claim that increasing meal frequency is a beneficial strategy for reducing fat mass is usually justified by the belief that frequent meal consumption enhances postprandial thermogenesis (the increase in heat production that occurs for up to 8 hours after consumption of a meal).
However, the majority of studies on the topic have failed to show a positive relationship between meal frequency and energy expenditure.
It is true that the total thermic effect of food increases as your protein intake increases. However, it doesn’t matter how many meals you eat, but rather the amount of food you eat.
It is the total amount of calories you consume that determines the amount of energy expended during digestion. In other words, eating six meals of 500 calories will cause the exact same thermic effect as eating three 1000-calorie meals.
An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition editorial supports this notion, reiterating that weight loss ultimately comes down to "how much energy (or calories) is consumed as opposed to how often or how regularly one eats."
That being said, nearly all nutrition experts can agree that irregular eating patterns and skipped meals are weight losses biggest enemies.
Potential Problems with increasing Meal Frequency
Like most nutrition findings, there are risks associated with increased meal frequency as well.
One of the main risks of eating more than three meals a day is that it gives you more opportunities to overeat. Especially for those of us that have trouble with portion control, sitting down more often for snacks and meals most likely means we’ll be eating much more than we would be with a traditional 3-meal diet.
Researchers have found that eating several smaller actually makes people want to eat more. Many people don’t feel satisfied after a small meal, causing them to eat more later in the day.
Not to mention, if you have a difficult time sticking to healthier meal choices, eating five or six times a day might just mean you’re choosing junk food options more frequently.
So to sum it up, if you’re wondering whether eating smaller meals more frequently will boost your metabolism, the answer is - probably not.
In fact, you might be better off sticking to three.
Banda, Wiktoria. “Monday Myths - Eating Small Frequent Meals Will Boost Metabolism.” Shapezine - Digital Health & Fitness Tracking Blog, 20 Dec. 2017, shapescale.com/blog/monday-myths/myth-small-frequent-meals/.
Daller, John A. “Weight Loss: How Many Meals a Day?” OnHealth, www.onhealth.com/content/1/weight_loss_how_many_meals_a_day.
Schoenfeld, Brad Jon, et al. “Effects of Meal Frequency on Weight Loss and Body Composition: a Meta-Analysis | Nutrition Reviews | Oxford Academic.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 13 Jan. 2015, academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/73/2/69/1820875.