How Often Should You Eat?

Your metabolism is elevated after you eat a meal. The number of calories burned processing the food you eat is called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).

Some nutrition “experts” teach eating more frequently to build muscle more efficiently because it will prevent your body from going into “starvation mode”.

Since your metabolism increases after a meal, eating meals more frequently must help you melt fat off and build muscle, right?

This theory cam from an early study (1986) showing increased metabolism in dogs when meals were eaten more frequently. Follow up studies showed the same thing in humans. (1-2)

Since the study on K-9’s, there have been a lot of studies done in much more controlled conditions…. on humans.

Let’s see what the body of resarch says about the theory of higher meal frequency equating to increased gains.

Meal Frequency and Metabolic Rate

Research does not support the claim that more frequent meals increase metabolism more than eating fewer big meals:

  • In one study thirteen participants were fed in either two meals per day or seven meals per day over 2-day intervals. On the second day metabolism was calculated. Researchers concluded there were no differences in the amount of calories burned in a 24 hour period between the two groups. (3)
  • One study even showed that whether you gorge yourself with 1 meal per day or eat 17 meals per day there is no difference in the total metabolic rate. (4)
  • The evidence is clear. How often you eat does not change your metabolic rate. (3-9)

Studies estimate the number of calorie burned processing a meal (TEF) to be about 10% of the total calories consumed, no matter how many meals you eat.

Whether you eat two 1,000 calorie meals or eight 250 calorie meals (2,000 calories in each scenario), the total calories burned processing the meals is about 200 calories.

Takeaway: Thermic Effect of Food is directly proportional to the total number of calories in a meal.

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(Chart courtesy of Brad “The Hypertrophy Expert” Schoenfeld)

Meal frequency and appetite

Some studies show that spacing meals throughout the day can help suppress your appetite, making you less hungry and therefore eating less calories (10-11). There are also several studies showing that meal frequency does not effect appetite (12).

What can we make of these conflicting results?

Here’s how to interpret such conflicting results: it’s up to your personal preference how frequently you eat. Forget the dogma and B-S you’ve been fed regarding this.

Sticking to an eating pattern long enough, you can dictate and control your hunger cycles. (13) The body will adapt to whatever schedule you expose it to. Pick an eating schedule that works for you, and stick to it. Your body will adapt. Don’t worry about being tied down by the “6 meals a day” rule.

If frequency doesn’t matter, then what does make more of a difference in suppressing your appetite?

Evidence is clear that diets high in protein is the best way to help regulate hunger throughout the day on a diet. (10-12)

If you do the following three things, you’re well on your way to building muscle and burning fat:

  1. Figure out what works best for you psychologically.
  2. Figure out what works for your schedule.
  3. Increase the amount of protein you’re eating. 

Here’s how it works for me: I don’t eat breakfast. I eat a massive lunch. I eat a massive dinner. All meals have a protein source. I consistently see results in the mirror by doing what works for me.

Everyone is different. Eat however often works best for you. Experiment.

Meal Frequency, Weight Loss, and Body Composition

 Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld are two of the few trustworthy folks in the fitness industry.

These two rockstars recently dug through tons of research to do a thorough review (meta-analysis) of the effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition.

Schoenfeld wrote summarized the results for people not quite as smart as himself with the following quote:

 “The results of our analysis do not support a tangible benefit to eating small frequent meals on body composition as long as daily caloric intake and macronutrient content is similar.” (14)

The Bottom Line On Meal Frequency.

Decide how many meals you want to eat per day based on your personal preference. Decide what works best for your schedule. Increase the amount of protein in each meal. Experiment. See what works best for you. Then stick with it.

You are now equipped with information 99% of the world has not clue about. Use it to your advantage.

Resources:

1. Early study showing increased metabolism in dogs with increased meal frequency.

2. Early study showing increased metabolism in humans with increased meal frequency.

3.  No differences for the amount of energy used in 24 hours

4. Meal frequency and a period of fasting have no major impact on energy intake or expenditure

5. Increasing meal frequency from three to six per day has no significant effect on 24-h fat oxidation

6. Meal frequency and meal composition did not seem to influence the TEF.

7. Amount of food eaten, but not the pattern with which it is ingested, has a major influence on energy balance during mild food restriction.

8. Gorge or eat 17 meals, no difference in total metabolic rate

9. Weight loss study showed no significant difference in meal frequency

10. Higher protein helped appetite, meal frequency didn’t

11. Higher protein helped, meal frequency didn’t

12. Higher protein helped, and so did meal frequency

13. We dictate our hunger cycles

14. Meta-Analysis of all studies done on the effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition.

Mentioned in this article: Mike Matthews, Brad Schoenfeld, and Alan Aragon.

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