I read an article recently from a well-meaning personal trainer listing the best ways to burn fat. Their ultimate recommendation on meal frequency was to “eat 6 meals a day, not 3 feasts.” They claimed this “increased metabolism”. And if you failed to follow their advice “your body would go into starvation mode, burning muscle and storing fat”.
Let’s look at the accuracy of that statement
Resting metabolic rate (RMR)
RMR refers to the caloric cost of maintaining basic body functions. These include keeping your heart beating, breathing and staying warm. A multitude of variables influence your RMR. Age, height, weight, gender, hormones (triiodothyronine, thyroxine and testosterone), muscle mass, etc. The calories you burn at rest play a far greater role than exercise in your total energy expenditure. In fact, they account for up to 14-times more. So before accepting blanket statements, it’s worth checking the facts.
I’ll start by discussing a study by Munsters and Saris (2012). The Dutch duo compared the daily effects of low (3) versus high frequency meals. This was a well-controlled, 36-hour study involving a dozen lean men. Regardless of the number of meals, the total calories were the same over the day. Meals consisted of 15% protein, 30% fat and 55% carbohydrate. Despite claims that lower meal frequency decreases metabolism, this study demonstrated the reverse:
“Participants burned 6% more calories when they eat 3 meals a day, instead of more (Munsters and Saris, 2012)”
To improve the likelihood of sticking to a nutrition plan, manage your hunger levels. Ghrelin is a hormone that sends messages to your brain to increase your appetite. These signals encourage you to eat. The 3-meal diet decreased ghrelin within an hour of eating breakfast. Levels then remained low throughout the day. The result was that appetite control improved in the 3-meal diet (Munsters and Saris, 2012). An American study by Leidy and Campbell (2011) offered further supporting evidence. They found that eating more than 3 meals a day had no impact on appetite control or food intake.
Ohkawara et al. (2013) compared the effects of 3 versus 6 meals over the course of four days. Calories were the same in spite of meal frequency. Once again, the researchers used the same protein, fat and carbohydrate split. This study involved a more diverse group of men and women. The team questioned participants before and after each meal to assess their appetite.
Participants rated their hunger 14% higher when they ate 6 meals a day instead of 3 (Ohkawara et al., 2013)
Participants didn’t experience the same sense of meal satisfaction with higher meal frequency. They found the more often they ate, the hungrier they were. Under these unfavourable conditions, researchers predicted participants would consume more calories ad libitum.
Leidy and Campbell (2011) studied overweight men during a behavioural weight loss program. Again, participants ate either 3 or 6 meals for three days. Lean or overweight, male or female, the outcome appears to be the same. Consistent with the other study, 6 meals per day came off worse for hunger. This appears to be a difficult meal pattern to maintain long-term.
Only 60% of participants eating 6 meals a day were able to last the full three days (Leidy and Campbell, 2011)
Most of my clients are either bankers or lawyers, not professional athletes. They need to fit eating and training around their meetings. Not the other way round unfortunately. So for most people in the City, eating every couple of hours would be an impossible task. I’d be setting them up for failure.
Meal frequency – Conclusion
Don’t make things complicated. The most important thing to concern yourself with is the total amount of calories you eat each week. Your calorie balance will dictate whether you lose or put on weight. Eat a balanced diet, with an even split of protein, fat and carbohydrate. Ask yourself, is the advice even accurate? Is it practical to your lifestyle? And is it your preferred choice? Remember, your goal is long-term adherence to an improved lifestyle. Consider all the variables that will help you achieve this.
If you want help with your nutrition plan send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be happy to assist.
Leidy HJ, Campbell WW. The effect of eating frequency on appetite control and food intake: brief synopsis of controlled feeding studies. The Journal of nutrition. 2011 Jan 1;141(1):154-7.
Munsters, M.J. and Saris, W.H., 2012. Effects of meal frequency on metabolic profiles and substrate partitioning in lean healthy males. PloS one, 7(6), p.e38632.
Ohkawara, K., Cornier, M.A., Kohrt, W.M. and Melanson, E.L., 2013. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity, 21(2), pp.336-343.