I remember when I was a big advocate of eating 5 meals per day. Like clockwork, I’d eat a meal every 2-3 hours. Part was great — I was always eating. Part of it sucked — I was always thinking about eating. But I figured, if I can lose fat by eating food consistently, then why not?
Well, the why not is because the entire idea was based on faulty science. And recent research suggests that eating more often might make it harder to lose weight and easier to pack on pounds.
So how did the small meals/grazing method go from the ultimate solution to maybe not so great? It was a big misunderstanding of how your metabolism works.
The foundation of the entire argument is that eating “fires up your metabolism.” It’s true…to a point.
Every time you put food in your mouth, you burn calories. When you eat, your inner machinery needs to work hard to break down the food you eat; the breakdown and conversion of food into energy requires some energy itself, and some is used to help you walk, think, breathe, build muscle, lose fat, and even sleep. Some.
And the rest? Well, the leftovers require energy to be transported as adipose tissue—the bad stuff that gives you love handles—or broken down and passed through your digestive tract. Going a bit farther, we know that the amount of energy you burn depends on the food you eat.
This is known as the thermic effect of food. Of all the foods you eat, protein is the most metabolically expensive—it costs more energy to breakdown, digest, and put to use than either carbohydrates or fat. Up to 30 percent of the calories you eat from protein are burned during the digestion and processing of those foods.
That’s one of the main reasons why diets with protein are so great; the more protein you eat, the more calories you burn. Carbohydrates are less metabolically active (about 6 to 8 percent burned), and fats are the least metabolically active (about 4 percent burned) despite being the highest in calories and great for your testosterone levels.
Now, here’s where all the confusion is creating and why everyone believes the must eat throughout the day. (Reminder: I’m not saying you should or should not eat every few hours, I’m explaining why you can choose your meal frequency.)
If eating requires energy, then eating more frequently would require energy more frequently—and that a net effect would be to require more energy. That’s how the multiple meals per day movement started. Makes sense from a logical perspective, but it’s completely based on pseudoscience and assumptions.
The reality is that when it comes to fat loss (muscle gain is different), your body doesn’t care about how many meals you eat. You can choose how often you want to eat every day.
The thermic effect of food is directly proportional to caloric intake and the foods you eat, and if caloric intake and food choice is the same at the end of the day, there will be no metabolic difference between eating six meals or three.
This fact is so blatantly true that Canadian researchers wrote a published study that was literally titled: “Increased Meal Frequency Does Not Promote Greater Weight Loss Who Were Prescribed an 8-week Equi-Energetic Energy-Restricted Diet.” In fact, as long as the total calories are the same, you can eat ten meals or one meal and you’ll still get the same metabolic effect.
French researchers added to that research and found that there is “no evidence of improved weight loss” by eating more frequently. They even went a step farther to show that in terms of the number of calories you burn per day, it does not matter if you graze or gorge—assuming that you’re eating the number of calories you need to lose weight.
So if you’re told to eat 2,000 calories per day, it doesn’t matter if it’s separated into five 400-calorie meals or a few smaller feasts. However, the composition of those meals does matter. Remember, proteins, carbs and fats are all metabolized differently, so the combination of these nutrients are still important, but how often you consume those foods might not matter as much as you thought.
Which brings us to recent research suggesting that not only are frequent meals not the “ultimate solution” they were positioned as, but eating more frequently without tracking calories might cause you to gain weight. From a practical standpoint, it makes sense. When you’re eating more frequently, the risk of eating too much food is increased because there are more times in the day when you can slip up or fall into “mindless eating.”
So, while you certainly can eat more frequently and lose weight without tracking, there is more opportunity when you can make mistakes and eat more than you thought. (After all, research shows that most people significantly underestimate the number of calories they consume.)
The solution? If you don’t like tracking, eating less frequently — with meals that are packed with protein — might be your best bet for weight loss. (Again, if you eating frequently and track, then there is less concern about overeating.)
If your goal is muscle building, then eating more frequently might be a better approach to you can maximize muscle protein synthesis, and make sure you get enough calories to support muscle gain.