What a hotly debated topic!
The subjects of meal frequency and timings for weight loss and getting lean certainly receive a lot of coverage.
Personally I have seen pretty much every possible meal frequency variation recommeded at some point – from gorging on 1 huge meal per day to ‘grazing’ on 6-8 much smaller ones.
I think there is a lot of misleading information out there in this area. Far too often a certain eating schedule is put forward as gospel by the person promoting it – as if using any other method will result in certain failure. There are of course a whole range of other, totally different eating plans promoted with similar enthusiasm.
The net result for the person wanting to know how often they should eat to lose weight is often confusion, and therefore inaction or a lack of commitment to any one method.
In this post I am going to try and tackle this common area of confusion as simply as possible. There is also a condensed Infographic version at the bottom of the post.
Note that the kind of people I have in mind when writing this post are typical ChilledFitness readers – people who want to lose fat and get lean as efficiently as possible.
This is not written for hardcore body builders or anyone trying to gain huge amounts of mass.
So How Often Should You Eat To Lose Weight?
To answer this question I have taken a look at relevant research studies on meal frequency, as well as reviews and opinions on them from people who’s views I value greatly; people such as Lyle McDonald, Martin Berkhan and Mark Sisson.
I’ll start off with some good news…
When you look at the credible studies in this area, the answer to the question of ideal meal frequency becomes quite clear: Meal frequency does not really matter.
Yes, that’s right.
There is nothing to show that eating 6 or 7 times per day instead of 3 is going to aid your weight loss goals. Let’s have a look at why this is the case…
The Meal Frequency Myth And How Your Metabolism Works
Whenever I refer to the ‘Meal Frequency Myth’ I am talking about the common notion that you should eat at least 5, 6 or more meals per day to keep your metabolism ticking over; otherwise it will drop.
After looking into the subject in detail, this line of thinking seems to be based on the Thermic Effect of Food, which basically means how much your metabolic rate increases after eating to cope with digestion and processing of a meal.
The logic behind eating ‘small and frequent meals’ is:
- Eating raises your metabolism because your body uses up energy dealing with food
- More meals per day would therefore result in more frequent raises in metabolic rate, so more calories are burned.
Although that seems to make sense, the amount your metabolic rate raises by (and for how long) is governed by how many calories you are eating. Big meals cause a big increase, small meals cause a small increase.
At the end of the day, each calorie you consume will cause your metabolism to raise by a certain amount. It doesn’t matter whether you eat 1800 calories as 3 meals of 600 calores each, or as 6 meals of 300 calories each.
You are either going to have 3 larger increases in metabolic rate or 6 smaller ones; whichever way you choose, the results are the same because:
Overall, it still takes the same amount of energy for your body to process 1800 calories whether you eat them as a few large portions or lots of smaller ones.
Research Into Meal Timing And Weight Loss
The points above about meal timing being largely irrelevant have been demonstrated as true in a few interesting studies.
The most comprehensive seems to be this one which took a broad look at all of the previous research in this area and evaluated the findings. Basically it says that the difference between “nibbling and gorging” was zero in terms of effects on weight loss. Further research published in The British Journal of Nutrition supports these findings.
An interesting piece by the highly respected Lyle McDonald also took a look at several prominent pieces of research. Lyle’s conclusion is also that meal frequency does not matter, unless eating infrequently causes you to get hungery and therefore binge on too many calories. I highly recommed you read that article.
The final sentence in Lyle’s piece sums up the findings perfectly:
“And, in case you missed it the first time through: eating more frequently does NOT, I repeat DOES NOT, ‘stoke the metabolic fire’.“
You can’t ask for things to be put any more clearly than that.
There is some research that says people who eat more sporadically and skip meals (breakfast, for example) are more likely to be overweight. This is true, however the relationship likely exists because once everyday people who know nothing about nutrition realise they are overweight, they begin to do things like skipping meals and going on crash diets.
There is nothing to show that missing breakfast or eating fewer meals has negative effects on weight loss or metabolic rate.
Intermittent Fasting: More Evidence Against A Need For Frequency
Intermittent Fasting, something I am currently experimenting with a lot, has some interesting case studies for anyone wondering how often you should eat in a day.
IF basically involves eating all of your daily calories inside a designated window, typically lasting between 4 and 8 hours. This means that for between 16 and 20 hours each day you are eating nothing at all, just drinking water or unsweetened tea and coffee. Some schedules even involve full 24 hour fasts.
This is not as bad as it sounds and I am actually finding it very easy to stick to, as well as practical.
The point is that people are are having great success using Intermittant Fasting techniques to lose body fat and build lean muscle. The usual recommendation in fitness magazines of eating small meals every few hours is being thrown out of the window by the IF crowd. Some of these guys are not eating their first meal of the day until mid-late afternoon, yet they are maintaining 5% body fat.
The usual objections to Intermittent Fasting are predictable: muscle loss, starvation mode, can’t miss breakfast, blood sugar problems – the list goes on.
I am not going to cover these points here because this has already been done in great detail by Martin Berkhan of LeanGains.com. The LeanGains website is the best free resource I have found on IF and I highly recommend you check it out, even if you are not interested in fasting.
Finding The Right Meal Frequency For You
We now know that contrary to popular opinion, eating little and often does not have any beneficial effect on metabolism. You can lose weight and body fat eating 6 meals per day, 3 meals per day or by following an Intermittent Fasting protocol and avoiding food for 20 hours or more.
What matters is the number of calories you eat and also what you eat. This is a subject for another post, but looking at the Paleo Diet is a great starting point.
However you decide to move ahead, make sure that you can keep things up long term. If you are comfortable eating 5 meals per day and staying within your calorie limits then this is fine. Many people, including myself, find that 3 meals suits better.
I cannot be carrying around plastic boxes or protein powders just to make sure I always have something on hand to eat. It is just too inconvenient.
Focus on what you eat, and on finding a meal frequency which works for you. Any plan you follow should mean that you are not going hungry and have no reason to start bingeing.
Summary Of Meal Timings For Weight Loss
The main takeaway after looking at the reliable evidence in this area is that meal frequency has no meaningful effect on weight loss or metabolism.
So, the answer to our question of how often should you eat?…
Eat as often as you like. Just make sure your calorie intakes are kept in check and made up of the right foods.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this post, it can certainly be a controversial subject
Please leave any comments, questions or feedback in the comments section below. Be sure to let me know any of your own experiences with meal timings too!