The Myth of “Eat Small Frequent Meals”

Many of us grew up eating three meals a day. Then somewhere along the way, the idea that eating small frequent meals was somehow better for us started to make the rounds. But is it actually better? Does eating more often help us to lose fat better than eating the standard three meals per day? It doesn’t appear that way! Let’s take a look.

(By the way, I’m certainly not the first person to explore this topic. You can check out two very well written articles by some super smart people HERE and HERE if you want to read more.)

Why ‘Small Frequent Meals’ Got Popular

The idea behind eating several small meals per day is that it will “boost our metabolism.” If we’re trying to lose weight, burning more calories via a revved up metabolism sounds pretty awesome, right?

There are two ideas behind this metabolism boost: 1) the energy required to digest our food, and 2) a potential slowing of the metabolism if the body goes into “starvation mode” if we don’t eat.

Neither of these are as simple as they appear.

You don't have to eat six times a day! Boosting metabolism by eating small frequent meals is a myth. There's a better and easier way.

The Myth of Eating More Often to Rev Your Metabolism

Yes, it takes energy to digest our food, it’s called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). It was thought that by eating more often, we’d turn this TEF thing “on” more often and therefore burn more calories just by eating more often. Sounds cool, right?

But eating more often doesn’t make TEF go up.

It’s proportional to how much we eat. Whether you eat a lot of small meals or fewer big meals, if the total calories for the day is the same, you will burn the same amount of calories to digest it. It has nothing to do with how many meals those calories are divided into.

Additionally, tightly controlled research of people in a lab (where calories are measured out exactly and the two groups eat those calories in different allotments) hasn’t shown an increase in daily calorie burn by eating more frequently.(1)

Eating more often doesn’t mean we burn more calories.

What about starvation mode? It sounds pretty scary, doesn’t it?

Thankfully, it’s not nearly that dire. It takes a very long time to actually get to a point where your body considers itself to be “starving.”

Going a couple more hours between meals is not the same as fasting for days on end.

Our hormones do shift, and with the shift comes a change in how we use fuel, but for fat loss this is actually a beneficial thing as opposed to a detriment. 

Biochem 101:

When we eat, our body gets to work breaking down food into its most basic “building blocks,” which then enter our bloodstream. The hormonal response after we eat is one of synthesis and storage (anabolic), because the amount of nutrients that’s suddenly come in is more than we typically need to use right in those moments. We call this the absorptive, or “fed” state, and it lasts about 2-4 hours after a normal meal.

After that time, when those nutrients have left the bloodstream, what happens?

Well, if no more food comes in, our bodies realize that we’ll need to call on those stores we just filled. So the hormonal response shifts to one in which we start to use what was stored (catabolic). However, if we eat again, the body just says “Awesome, I’ve got more nutrients coming in, no need to mobilize the stores!” and it remains in a more anabolic state.

If we’re eating frequently, we don’t really allow our bodies to get into the state where we’re using our stores.

If your goal is fat loss, you want to make sure you’re shifting into that state. Eating frequently, whether you call it “snacking” or a “higher meal frequency”, means we’ve got a constant influx of calories, which keeps us from needing to rely on our stores.

One simple change many of us can make is to focus on eating our food at regular meals, and avoiding snacking.

You don't have to eat six times a day! Boosting metabolism by eating small frequent meals is a myth. There's a better and easier way.

How Does it Affect People in Real Life?

Okay, the (very) brief biochem review and talk about tightly controlled people in a lab are great and all, but what about real people living in the real world?

If we know that eating more often doesn’t make us magically burn more calories, then how does it impact the other factors at play in how we eat, like our hunger, satiety, or blood sugar regulation?

There has been a lot of research on meal frequency. While there is no clear-cut consensus (there rarely is, by the way, regardless of what the media tells you), it seems that eating frequently doesn’t have any benefit over eating a typical 3-meal-per-day pattern in terms of decreasing hunger or improving blood sugar management.(1)

In fact, some recent studies showed improved weight loss, insulin sensitivity, glucose control, resting metabolic rate, and appetite management in people eating 2 or 3 times per day instead of 6 or more. (2,3)

Snacking = Extra calories

There is also some evidence that eating more than 3 times per day is associated with a higher likelihood of being overweight. (4) People who are overweight or obese are more frequent snackers than people of normal weight, and snacks are commonly associated with taking in too many calories.

Some studies have shown that the calories we consume when snacking aren’t made up for in the next meal (5), meaning if you eat a 200 calorie snack, your next meal doesn’t end up being 200 calories less to even things out, and the snack simply added calories to the day’s total intake.

Snacking is a way that extra calories sneak into our day and prevent us from seeing weight loss progress.

Not only are extra calories coming in, but we’re also not allowing the hormonal shift that brings about the ability to use our stored up nutrients.

[bctt tweet=”Snacking is a way that extra calories sneak into our day and prevent us from seeing weight loss progress.” username=”raisingnutritn”]

There is a really interesting paper out that talks about the difference between “snacking” and “high meal frequency.” Although one might assume these are the same thing, they appear to show different results in research, with increased meal frequency having some potential benefits or being associated with lower body fat, and snacking showing the opposite – an association with extra calories and being overweight. (5)

The difference may be due, at least in part, to how the studies are conducted and what is considered a “meal” or a “snack”. Additionally, although a first look at the research seems to show some benefits to a higher meal frequency, further investigation (and taking certain confounding factors into account) tends to erase that perceived benefit! (6)

So where does that leave us?

In my coaching, I help clients work on eating 3 or 4 times per day without snacking between them, and allowing themselves to get hungry before eating their meals. Eating more often hasn’t been shown to be beneficial for weight loss, blood sugar control, or hunger management. It simply means there are more occasions in the day for us to potentially overeat.

In my personal experience, as well as the experiences of many of my clients, trying to eat several mini-meals in a day means always thinking about food. Finish one small meal or snack and already you’re wondering when you’ll next be able to eat! In that scenario, you’re not sitting down to a nice big plate of food and eating until hunger is actually satisfied. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like a way I’d want to spend my day!

Enjoying a fully satisfying meal is much more pleasant than going through your day constantly chasing hunger or trying to keep it at bay.

Of course, if you’re eating 6 times a day and it’s working well for you, keep doing it. No need to fix what isn’t broken! I ate that way for a long time, with planned snacks that were just the right size to get me to my next meal comfortably. I was just as healthy then as I am now, and I currently eat 3-4 times per day.

However, if you’re eating frequently just because you think you “should”, and it’s not really working for you, it may be time to try a different approach. 

Prioritize satisfying meals and you may be pleasantly surprised to find you don’t need those snacks!

If you need help making those healthy meals EASIER, check out my free guide: Make Healthy Meals EASIER Than Take-Out at the bottom of this post! It will help get you set up for those lovely satisfying  meals, even if you’re pressed for time.

How often do you currently eat? Do you like it, or are you thinking of changing it up? Leave a comment below!


References (if you’re into that sort of thing!):

1 – Leidy, H. J., & Campbell, W. W. (2011). The effect of eating frequency on appetite control and food intake: brief synopsis of controlled feeding studies. The Journal of Nutrition, 141(1), 154–7.

2 – Munsters MJM, Saris WHM (2012). Effects of Meal Frequency on Metabolic Profiles and Substrate Partitioning in Lean Healthy Males. PLoS ONE 7(6): e38632. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038632

3 – Kahleova H, Belinova L, Malinska H, et al. (2014). Eating two larger meals a day (breakfast and lunch) is more effective than six smaller meals in a reduced-energy regimen for patients with type 2 diabetes: a randomised crossover study. Diabetologia. 2014;57(8):1552-1560. doi:10.1007/s00125-014-3253-5.

4 – Howarth NC, Huang TT-K, Roberts SB, Lin B-H, and McCrory MA.(2006). Eating patterns and dietary composition in relation to BMI in younger and older adults. International Journal of Obesity (2007) 31, 675–684. doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803456; published online 5 September 2006.

5 – Chapelot D. 20(11). The role of snacking in energy balance: a biobehavioral approach.J Nutr. 2011 Jan;141(1):158-62. doi: 10.3945/jn.109.114330. Epub 2010 Dec 1.

6 – Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. (2015). Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews Feb 2015, 73 (2) 69-82; DOI: 10.1093/nutrit/nuu017

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