There used to be this belief that went around that eating little and often was somehow better for your metabolism. By eating smaller meals more often, it would fire up your metabolism and allow you to burn more fat.
In fact, I still get people telling me, “I know where I’m going wrong – I’m not eating enough meals. I need to reduce the portions, but have them more often. You know, to improve my metabolism”. Usually, it’s met with a look of disbelief on my part. But just so you know why it doesn’t matter how many meals you eat, here it is.
Back in the day studies came out that found that when you ate, you revved your metabolism. So the logic went along the lines of
‘Well if every time we eat, our metabolism is boosted – surely it’s better to eat more often to boost our metabolism throughout the day.’
Whilst it sounds logical, it comes down to TEF (thermic effect of food). And if you read the last email, you’ll know what that means.
TEF is the amount of energy expenditure above the basal metabolic rate due to the cost of processing food for use and storage. So for everything we eat, we have to burn calories by chewing and digesting it. On average, it makes up about 10% of the total daily calories we burn.
That’s to say, if we burn 2,500 calories a day, 250 of those calories are from the thermic effect of food.
But here’s the caveat…
TEF isn’t boosted by the number of meals, but rather the amount of calories eaten.
So that doesn’t mean that by eating more often, you’ll rev your metabolism. If you eat 2,500 calories per day in 3 meals or 6, you’ll still roughly burn 250 calories through TEF anyway.
This study proves that.
And this is what it looks like in a neat little graph I whipped up.
The above shows 2 meals per day (orange), 3 meals per day (blue), and 5 meals per day (red). They all consume the same amount of calories, just in different amounts per meal. 500 cals per meal, 5 x a day.833 cals per meal, 3 x a day.1250 cals per meal, 2 x a day. And if TEF is roughly 10% of the calories we consume, here’s what that looks like per meal too.
As you can see, the biggest spike in metabolism is actually the two daily meals option, as it requires us to burn 125 calories each meal, with the 5 meals per day coming in last at 50 calories per day.
That doesn’t actually mean that less is better, it just means your body requires more energy to digest the larger meal.
Looking at the totals, no matter the meal frequency, they’re still requiring a total of 250 calories to digest and absorb the food.
This study put this theory to the test and had participants eat 1-2 meals per day, or 6 meals per day, with the goal being to track and measure weight loss across differing meal frequencies.
The study said…
“We conclude that increasing MF does not promote greater body weight loss under the conditions described in the present study.”
This study, undertaken in Puerto Rico found that eating more meals actually led to a higher degree of abdominal fat. This is largely due to them eating more often, with more calories being consumed in total.
Whilst this study of moderately obese women on equal calorie-restricted diets eating two, three or six meals per day found ‘There was no significant effect of the feeding frequency on the rate of weight loss, fat mass loss or fat-free mass loss. Furthermore, fat mass and fat-free mass contributed equally to weight loss in subjects on both gorging and nibbling diets.’
Studies have actually gone one step further saying the more frequent the meals, the more likely you are to increase your BMI and increase your risk of heart disease.
Kind of makes sense as most people would be eating more calories in the 6 meals than the 1-2 meaning they’re more likely to increase their body fat stores, resulting in those findings.
In summary, it doesn’t really matter how many meals you want to eat each day, what matters most is that it’s within your caloric intake and fits within your lifestyle. If you survive better off of 5 meals every day, or one large one – it doesn’t matter. Stay aware of your calories and you’ll make progress regardless.