Eating More Meals Does NOT Speed Up Your Metabolism
This is one of the biggest myths and misconceptions that I hear all the time in mainstream media and people trying to tell me how to eat healthy. Ask any trainer, nutritionist, doctor, diet guru…or whoever and they will probably all tell you the same thing “You need to eat small meals through out the day to speed up/keep your metabolism going”.
Really? Is that how it works? Our metabolism accelerates based on meal to meal frequency during a day? I don’t think so.
In fact, next time you hear someone say that just ask them to explain it in more detail and hear what they have to say then. In the meantime let’s go over what is happening and dispel this myth (as I have people who are overweight telling me that they need to eat 6x a day inorder to lose weight because some hollywood trainer wrote it in his latest book and that I am wrong).
Eating 6x a Day “Can” Help You Lose Weight … BUT …
Hey, I will be the first to admit it that eating 6x a day “can” work. Many people have proved it. But what people neglect to look at is WHY it works. It’s NOT because of some magical accelerated metabolic process associated with eating more often. Most people call this thermogenesis, where the body expels energy in the form of heat through what it has to do (such as the energy of digestion).
But here’s the fun part, if you eat the same amount of food in 6 meals…or 3 meals…isn’t that the same amount of digestion? So how can there be any advantage due to thermogenesis? (getting a bit ahead here)
But let’s go back to the REAL reasons eating 6x a day works:
- People are recommended to eat more fibrous vegetables and protein to keep fuller
- Eating more often can help curb cravings and binge eating
- Smaller meals in right portions of carb/protein/fat can keep blood sugar/insulin stable and encourage more fat burning while in the “fed” state all day long
- At the end of the day people who get success are still in calorie deficit
So there you have it, eating 6x a day works only because it is calorie deficit at heart. So now one has to ask that if you can still eat the same amount of calories in 3 meals then wouldn’t you get the same results?
I can hear all the nutrionists and trainers around the world yelling at me at once “You’re wrong”…”You’re going to crash your metabolism”…and all the other things you hear so often. But honestly folks, where did this train of thought start?
Could it be originally from the bodybuilding/supplement/diet industry (a multi billion dollar industry!!) that preys on the fear of going into a catabolic state and wasting away muscle…so you need to buy more protein powder, bars, etc. Or could it be from one of the many newer weight loss companies making billions selling prepared or portioned out foods/bars/shakes specifically for eating 5-6x a day?
Could it be this is the greatest marketing sales pitch in the diet world today? I think so!
Where’s the Proof?
That’s what I would ask anyone touting the 6 meals a day mantra. Really, where is the proof that is the ONLY way to lose weight (as I already talked about it can work, but it’s not the only way)? Where is the proof that is speeds up your metabolic rate at all (which is the only reason people are being encouraged to eat 6x a day)? I already said that anyone can lose weight eating 6x a day but they can also lose weight applying the same calorie deficit to 3 meals a day.
Personally when I tried to nibble from morning to night (when I was sold on this philosophy a long long time ago) I was hungry all day long! It made me miserable and “feel like” I was starving (not actually eating so low in calories that I was). There was no enjoyment….no wonder no one can stick with all those new diet books coming out preaching this concept. I mean, who wants to carry around 5-6 meals a day…who has time in their lives for eating eating eating? Are we living to eat, or shouldn’t we really be eating to live?
So you want proof, well here’s some that just shows there is none for the 6 meal a day preachers…..
Effects of meal frequency on energy utilization in rats.
Hill JO, Anderson JC, Lin D, Yakubu F. Department of Pediatrics, Vanderbilt University
“The effects of differences in meal frequency on body weight, body composition, and energy expenditure were studied in mildly food-restricted male rats. Two groups were fed approximately 80% of usual food intake (as periodically determined in a group of ad libitum fed controls) for 131 days. One group received all of its food in 2 meals/day and the other received all of its food in 10-12 meals/day. The two groups did not differ in food intake, body weight, body composition, food efficiency (carcass energy gain per amount of food eaten), or energy expenditure at any time during the study. Both food-restricted groups had a lower food intake, body weight gain, and energy expenditure than a group of ad libitum-fed controls. In conclusion, these results suggest that amount of food eaten, but not the pattern with which it is ingested, has a major influence on energy balance during mild food restriction.“
Meal frequency and energy balance.
Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70.
“More importantly, studies using whole-body calorimetry and doubly-labelled water to assess total 24 h energy expenditure find no difference between nibbling and gorging. Finally, with the exception of a single study, there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency. We conclude that any effects of meal pattern on the regulation of body weight are likely to be mediated through effects on the food intake side of the energy balance equation.”
Thermogenesis in humans after varying meal time frequency
Wolfram G, Kirchgessner M, Miller HL, Hollomey S.
To a group of 8 healthy persons a slightly hypocaloric diet with protein (13% of energy), carbohydrates (46% of energy) and fat (41% of energy) was given as one meal or as five meals in a change-over trial. Each person was 2 weeks on each regimen. Under the conditions of slight undernutrition and neutral temperature the balances of nitrogen, carbon and energy were assessed in 7-day collection periods, and according to 48-hour measurements of gaseous exchange (carbon-nitrogen balance method) by the procedures of indirect calorimetry. Changes of body weight were statistically not significant. At isocaloric supply of metabolizable energy with exactly the same foods in different meal frequencies no differences were found in the retention of carbon and energy. Urinary nitrogen excretion was slightly greater with a single daily meal, indicating influences on protein metabolism. The protein-derived energy was compensated by a decrease in the fat oxidation. The heat production calculated by indirect calorimetry was not significantly different with either meal frequency. Water, sodium and potassium balances were not different. The plasma concentrations of cholesterol and uric acid were not influenced by meal frequency, glucose and triglycerides showed typical behaviour depending on the time interval to the last meal. The results demonstrate that the meal frequency did not influence the energy balance.
and there are many more…..but what you do see is the following trends:
- There is no real truth to accelerated thermogenesis from increased meal frequency (with same calorie deficit load)
- There is no real truth of improved body composition with increased meal frequency (with same calorie deficit load)
- It’s still about the total calories for the day even with different insulin responses
- Hunger is the biggest issue with any dieting and eating more often is supposed to help combat that (but it depends on what people are eating whether that is true or not)
- People who eat more frequently may have lower insulin spikes for smaller fat burning throughout the day, but the smaller number of larger meals may have also more fat burning ability in the spaces between meals or fasting states….in the end it’s still the same amount of fat burned it seems…..wow, the body is an amazing piece of work….and we are really just beginning to understand it better.
Eating All Day Isn’t What I Want to Do
There are also some disadvantages (I mean besides making/storing/carrying around all the food and spending tons of money on supplements) to the eating 6x a day strategy including:
- Can increase cravings if your food choices are not all veggies/fruits/meats
- Does not help decrease insulin resistance (and may help increase it) if you are putting sugar in your body all day long from bars or other processed food choices
- It is very easily to overeat calorie wise at a snack or meal and not put yourself in calorie deficit mode (therefore you do not lose weight). This is especially important for women who need much less then men for a meal or snack.
- This is not a realistic ongoing lifestyle approach for people with real lives, working long hours and doing what we do today. (I mean if it works in the short term that’s one thing, but it has to be sustained to call it a true success. You can see many of those celebrities showing off how they lost all this weight doing some prepared meal plan….but do they keep it off? Many don’t.)
That Means There Can Be Another Way
So if you are looking for optimal fat loss you could also add in some Intermittent Fasting / Feeding (IF) and you get the additional benefits of:
- No decrease in metabolic rate (in fact there is a slight increase due to more SNS hormonal responses)
- Increased release of FFAs (free fatty acids) to burn when you are not eating (aka fasting state)
- Increased GH pulsing (which can preserve muscle and help release FFAs)
- No more worrying about food all day
- No more preparing/carrying around Tupperware containers
- No need for protein powders or shakes (if your goal is weight loss, for people wanting more muscle you still may need additional protein depending on how much you can eat in the feeding window)
- Increased mental clarity
- having a life outside of food and the gym
So there you have it. You can eat 6x a day, 3x a day, 10x a day…honestly that is your choice…..it appears that it won’t really matter when the calories are the same. When you add in some IF (intermittent fasting/feeding) and keep your eating on a more planned routine, you will see better responses to insulin sensitivity and FFA oxidation. No wonder many people who try IF are finding easy results and more importantly a new freeing way of life. Still lots of questions and much more research to be discovered on all these topics…but there is a better way it seems (if we can stop listening to all the myths in mainstream media that is driven by an industry financially dependent on having us all eat more often).
Update: If you enjoyed this be sure to read Part II of this series here for more info and commentary about this important subject.
CC Main Photo credit: Zach Dischner on Flickr
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