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).
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:
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!
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 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:
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:
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.