Optimal meal frequency is a widely debated topic in the fitness world, but are six small meals really better for your metabolism than traditional three meals? Let’s take a closer look at the common claims people make and the research behind those claims to find out how often you should really eat to achieve your goals.
MYTH: EATING MORE FREQUENTLY WILL INCREASE MY METABOLISM
You’ve probably heard the advice that it is better to be eating throughout the day. Many people believe that eating small meals more frequently keeps your metabolism humming, prevents hunger, and controls blood sugar. As a result, your body burns more calories overall. Sound good, right? Except it may not work that way.
The idea that eating more frequent, smaller meals will boost your metabolism is a persistent myth and research shows that this is simply not true. It is true that our bodies expend a certain amount of energy when digesting food. In other words, you burn calories as you eat. This phenomenon is termed as the thermic effect of food (TEF). It amounts to about 20-30% of calories for protein, 5-10% for carbohydrates and 0-3% for fat calories.
On average, the total thermic effect of food is around 10% of your total caloric intake, but as your protein intake increases so does this percentage. However, what matters is not how many meals you eat but the amount of food you eat. It is the total amount of calories you consume that determines the amount of energy expended during digestion. Eating 6 meals of 500 calories will cause the exact same thermic effect as eating 3 1000-calorie meals. Given the average thermic effect of 10%, in both cases, you burn 300 calories. When dietary intake is matched, there is no difference in the metabolic rate.
RESEARCH SHOWS MEAL FREQUENCY HAS NO EFFECT ON METABOLIC RATE
This is supported by numerous studies that have compared eating many smaller vs. fewer larger meals. Researchers conclude there is no significant effect on either metabolic rate or the total amount of fat loss. For example, a study from the University of Ottawa found that on a low-calorie diet, there was no weight loss advantage to splitting calories among six meals rather than three. A second study found that switching from three daily meals to six did not boost calorie-burning or fat loss. In fact, the researchers concluded, eating six meals a day actually made people want to eat more.
Studies have shown that many people don’t feel satisfied following a small meal, which can then cause them to overeat later. Psychologically, eating small but frequently can leave you wanting more because you never sit down to have a full meal. One study shows that three meals a day are actually superior to six meals a day for appetite control. In this study, three high-protein meals lead to greater fullness and appetite control when compared to six high-protein meals.
Essentially, increasing meal frequency does not increase metabolic rate when dietary intake is matched. What is important to stress is that total calories consumed count much more than frequency.
There is no doubt that meal frequency is highly individual. Many people eat every 2-3 hours. Some eat only one big meal a day and others have 3.
If you like to snack throughout the day you might want to go the mini-frequent meals route. Here, however, it is very common for people to overeat. If you’re eating frequently, it is easy to lose track of the calories that you’ve consumed. It can also be more difficult to ensure that each time you eat, you’re consuming the right combination of macronutrients. Therefore it is important that you choose good foods and keep portion sizes in check. So avoid “junk” foods that are so easy to overeat on and instead fuel up on protein and high-fiber carbohydrates.
THE BOTTOM LINE
So what is the optimal meal frequency? Based on the current research, meal frequency does not matter when it comes to speeding up metabolic rate. The number of meals you eat doesn’t matter as much as what you eat. Whether you are eating 6 or 3 times a day, the key is that you consume a number of meals that allow you to meet your nutritional needs consistently each day. Fill your plate with fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean sources of protein. Quality, calories, and portion sizes are what makes the difference.
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