Chances are at some point or another in your life you played the “telephone game” – whether it was in grade school or with a group of friends. You know, the game where you and your classmates or a group of friends pass along a message or phrase via whispering from person to person until that message reaches the last individual, in which that individual reports the message aloud.
The majority of the time, the original message gets skewed by the time it is said aloud.
With cliche terminology and illogical advice thrown around by “fitness gurus” in the fitness industry today, it can be a difficult task to find the truth in nutrition and training principles.
Like the telephone game, messages and advice (both good and bad) can become distorted as more receivers pass the original message down the chain.
Meal Frequency and Timing
Just the other day, I came across an advertisement in a fitness magazine promoting eating every 2-3 hours to keep the metabolism “firing” and to minimize muscle breakdown while promoting fat loss.
Individuals setting out a weight loss journey are told they must eat 6-8 small meals per day to lose fat effectively.
Fitness enthusiasts may become increasingly concerned with missing a meal or not getting a meal in within a certain time in fear of the metabolic rate slowing.
Trainers may encourage clients in contest preparation to tote around a cooler all day – containing multiple, individually-packed plastic food containers of portioned chicken breast and a sweet potato, so the client can stoke the metabolic fire by eating every few hours.
Meal frequency is certainly not a “more is better” approach and should be specific to the individual’s health and fitness goals, schedule, and food preferences.
Let’s consider the bigger picture and take a deeper look.
The Thermic Effect of Food
The basis of eating more frequently to promote fat loss and improved body composition stems from the concept of diet induced thermogenesis also known as the thermic effect of food (TEF).
The TEF in simplest terms is the energy used in digestion, absorption and distribution of nutrients.
Just as we expend energy via physical activity and at rest, we also expend energy via digestive processes following the ingestion of food. Point blank: every time you eat, the TEF increases.
It should be noted that the TEF constitutes ~10% of a total daily energy expenditure based on the composition of macronutrients in the diet.
With that being said, conventional wisdom would tell us in order to reap the benefits of the TEF we should eat more frequently to stimulate the TEF more often.
However, research suggests the TEF is less pronounced with each smaller meal that we eat. So essentially, the less energy (calories) we take in and the more frequently we eat, the lower the TEF (1). This is illogical for those looking to lose weight via calorie restriction as the magnitude of the TEF is decreased by taking in fewer calories.
Point blank: As calories are reduced, the TEF is decreased – making the basis of “stoking the metabolic fire” appear seemingly invalid.
Contrary to popular belief in the fitness industry, a high meal frequency has no “calorie burning advantage” over a lower meal frequency – provided total calorie intake is controlled for (2, 3).
3,200 calories with a specific macronutrient distribution of 50 percent calories from carbohydrate, 30% calories from protein, and 20% calories from fat spread throughout the day in 6 meals is not any different than 3,200 calories with the same macronutrient distributions spread throughout the day in 4 meals.
Meal Frequency and Metabolism
The body’s metabolism is always firing. Some metabolisms fire at a higher capacity. An efficient metabolic capacity is determined by several factors including age, gender, activity level, and proportion of lean body mass (LBM) to fat mass.
A high meal frequency does not significantly increase the human metabolism. Missing a meal or eating a meal at a later time in the day than one normally would does not negatively affect the metabolic rate – provided calorie intake is accounted for. The body’s metabolism simply does not work that quickly.
A trained individual will not enter the ever-so-scary, overhyped ‘starvation mode’ because he or she goes 3 hours without a meal. Contrary to popular fitness dogma, the body will not aggressively eat away at an individual’s hard earned muscle tissue if a meal is missed or delayed.
The human metabolism does not have an inherent biological clock in which it magically stops working. The metabolism is an ever-changing process of building new substrates and breaking down substrates to make energy available.
The body’s metabolism is constantly switching the “on and off” switch — between maintaining and building substrate (anabolism) and breaking down (catabolism) substrate for energy – depending on the body’s needs.
Failing to recognize that the body’s metabolic needs are in a constant state of change based on physical and chemical energy needs is taking a snapshot of the energy equation and bypassing the bigger picture:overall calorie intake and calorie expenditure.
Meal Frequency and Appetite
For the purposes of regulating appetite, a higher meal frequency may be most appropriate. Distributing daily calories into several smaller meals can help keep hunger at bay.
Bottom line here: when folks consume fewer calories than they need, weight loss will occur. If a higher meal frequency accompanies a calorie restriction, weight loss will occur.
There is nothing magical about meal frequency.
Folks on a calorie restriction of 2,000 calories distributed in 4 meals vs. folks on a calorie restriction of 2,000 calories distributed in 8 meals will lose weight – completely independent of meal frequency.
Alternatively, for a strength athlete with increased calorie needs – a higher meal frequency may be optimal.
However, if the strength athlete prefers larger meals and has a noticeably increased appetite when meal frequency is haphazard and not “set in stone” – a lower meal frequency fits the bill.
1) Determine your calorie and macronutrient needs based on your training and nutrition goals.
2) Distribute your meals based on your individual preference.
Conclusions and Practicality
We all have a different health and fitness agenda. Individual response, training and nutrition goals, and context are paramount in determining what is optimal. Therefore, meal frequency and meal schedules should be structured upon the accommodation of food preferences, tolerances, flexibility, and becoming in-tune with the body’s natural hunger cues — which will vary person to person.
With that being said, an individual looking to decrease body fat may benefit from eating more frequently – since this may allow the individual to regulate appetite given total calorie intake is kept in check. Alternatively, an individual may benefit from eating less frequently since he or she prefers larger meals. If so, this approach may be most optimal for him or her.
The purpose of this article was to dismantle the dogma that it is an absolute necessity to eat 6 smalls per day to lose fat and debunk the misconception that grazing throughout the day stokes the metabolic fire.
Personal preference overrides subjective opinions and anecdotes passed down in the fitness community. Presumed truths passed along in the fitness industry must be examined contextually based on not only a physiological level, but an individualized level as well.
1. Miles CW, Wong NP, Rumpler WV, Conway J: Effect of circadian variation in energy expenditure, within-subject variation and weight reduction on thermic effect of food. Eur J Clin Nutr 1993, 47:274-284.
2. Taylor MA, Garrow JS. Compared with nibbling, neither gorging nor a morning fast affect short-term energy balance in obese patients in a chamber calorimeter. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 Apr;25(4):519-28.
3. Verboeket-van de Venne WP, Westerterp KR. Influence of the feeding frequency on nutrient utilization in man: consequences for energy metabolism. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1991 Mar;45(3):161-9.