Should you spread your calories out…or eat them all at once?
If you’ve been paying attention to nutrition for a while, you’ve probably heard that you need to eat many meals a day to “stoke your metabolism” or “consistently burn fat” throughout the day. The only problem is that particular piece of common wisdom is probably wrong.
You heard right.
Some of the research on the topic is mixed, and many of the studies supporting frequent eating are very old and/or used animal subjects.
In scientific terms, we say the evidence of benefit for frequent meals is somewhat limited.
So if someone says you need to eat frequent meals to burn fat most effectively, they’re incorrect.
How Would it Work?
Increased fat burning would require an increase in diet induced thermogenesis (fat burning through the body’s digestion of food), total energy expenditure (what you burn in the day), and resting metabolic rate (what you burn while resting completely).
Eating more frequently doesn’t appear to do any of those things.
Benefits of Many Meals
That’s not to say that eating frequently is a bad thing. It may even be the best thing for you. There just isn’t evidence that it helps you burn more fat.
Eating frequently, however, does appear to have positive effects on some blood markers of health like LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and insulin levels.
Frequent meals also seem to decrease hunger and improve appetite control.
If you’re less hungry then you’re more likely to eat less and make better food choices. If that’s an issue, the net result would be fat loss. Also, if you eat breakfast at 7am, lunch around noon, and dinner at 6:30pm, you’ve got a long gap (6 1/2hrs) between lunch and dinner. If I didn’t have a meal/snack in between I’d be ravenous by dinner and eat all the wrong things.
Some people can go hours without it affecting the intensity of their appetite, but they’re in the minority. Most of my Online Coaching clients need to eat at least every 4-5 hours.
Large meals can also trigger acid reflux, in susceptible people. Eating smaller, more frequent meals would be better in that case.
Issues with the Research
As with all nutrition research, there are limits to what we can determine.
Many of the studies were done with sedentary and overweight/obese subjects and the results may not translate to an athletic population.
Self-reporting (subjects recording their own eating behaviour) is also notoriously unreliable, and is the method by which a lot of the data was collected.
The Current View
This may change with further research, but for now it seems that it’s the total amount of food that you consume over the course of the day that matters – and not whether you space it out.
There are other issues that haven’t been well-researched, like how certain foods or combinations of macros (protein/carbs/fat) impact your fat burning capabilities. For that we’ll have to stay tuned.
As always, I believe in an individualized approach.
If you prefer frequent meals and it works better for you then keep it up. I’ve tried eating every 2-3 hours in the past and it didn’t work for me. All I could think about was my next meal!
If you’re trying to put on muscle mass and you’re a relatively large person, you’re probably going to eat more than 3 or 4 meals a day.
As you no doubt remember from Thanksgiving, there’s only a certain amount of food you can consume and still manage to get yourself up off the couch to do something productive. When you’re looking to put on size, eating becomes a part-time job and you have to think about fuelling your muscles with a sufficient quantity of food (and particularly protein) consistently.
Food is also important socially, and the tendency to have three meals, plus one or two snacks, is deeply engrained for many people.
If it’s working for you, keep it up. If it’s not then try something different. Just don’t let anyone tell you that you have to eat many meals a day for fat loss.