Today a question from a reader on the subject of whether you need to eat six small meals a day.
“All the research I’ve done has said you’re supposed to eat six times a day and I pretty much do,” she wrote.
“But I’m not losing and weight and feel hungry every 2 or 3 hours. What am I doing wrong?”
The idea that you need to eat 5-6 small meals a day to “keep your body fueled and stoke your metabolism” is the stock answer given to people who want to lose weight.
But it’s actually a myth. How it got started I don’t know, but it’s been debunked so many times that it surprises me people still believe it.
The most recent study I came across, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, looked at 3 versus 6 meals a day, and concludes that “increasing meal frequency does not promote greater body weight loss.”
“There were no significant differences between the low- and high-meal frequency groups for adiposity indices, appetite measurements or gut peptides (peptide YY and ghrelin) either before or after the intervention. We conclude that increasing meal frequency does not promote greater body weight loss under the conditions described in the present study.”
This finding is not particularly new or revolutionary. In fact, research going back to the 1990′s shows no difference in weight loss with 3 or 6 meals a day.
One potential downside of eating more frequently (particularly for women, who generally need fewer calories each day than men) is that it can leave you hungrier than if you’d eaten the same number of calories in fewer meals.
University of Colorado researchers found that increasing meal frequency from three to six per day had no significant effect on metabolic rate or the amount of fat burned over a 24-hour period, and actually increased both hunger and the desire to eat.
Similar results were found in this 2011 study. In subjects with a relatively high protein intake (25% of total calories), eating three rather than six meals per day led to greater evening and late-night fullness.
Let’s take the example of a female trying to lose weight by eating 1200 calories per day.
If she was to eat six times a day, each meal would contain just 200 calories — the equivalent of a large banana and a few nuts. Such a tiny amount of food isn’t going to do much for your hunger pangs and will probably leave you wanting even more.
In my experience, most people don’t want to eat six times a day anyway. Who has time for that these days?
“Eating six meals a day, every two hours is just another way of being a slave to your lifestyle and your stuff,” writes Jason Ferruggia.
“Having to eat every two hours is just more baggage. It’s like owning something else that you just don’t need. Something else you need to always take care of and revolve your life around.”
Some people have taken things to the other extreme, claiming that one huge meal per day is the best way to eat.
Much of their reasoning is based on the “hunter-gatherers evolved this way so we should all do it” hypothesis. Which ignores the rather obvious fact that hunter-gatherers were not in the slightest bit concerned with improving their body composition. They simply wanted to survive.
There is a big difference between what we might have eaten 10,000 years ago and what is optimal for losing fat and building muscle. Humans have evolved not to subsist on a single diet but to be flexible eaters. Hunter-gatherers simply took full advantage of any dependable sources of energy in their environment.
This doesn’t mean that the hunter-gatherer diet represents the “right” way of eating. Rather, it illustrates how well humans cope with an incredibly diverse range of eating strategies.
What about meal frequency and muscle growth?
For years, we’ve been told that eating every 2-3 hours is the best way to build muscle and gain weight. However, there is some emerging research to suggest that eating too frequently could actually impair gains in muscle mass.
The idea is that eating too often has the potential to slow muscle growth by “desensitizing” muscle tissue to further stimulation by amino acids, increasing the rate at which protein is oxidized.
Spacing meals apart and allowing amino acid levels in the blood to drop, rather than maintaining them at continuously stable levels, appears to have the greatest impact on protein synthesis.
Or to put it another way, leaving longer between meals may help “re-sensitize” muscle to the anabolic effect of amino acids. Both Layne Norton and Lyle McDonald have covered the subject in more depth here and here.
However, I should point out that much of the research out there looks at short-term changes in muscle protein synthesis rather than actual changes in muscle mass. And while the two are linked to some degree, short-term changes in protein synthesis don’t always add up to long-term gains in muscle mass.
In one of the few studies to look at the impact of meal frequency on muscle growth, researchers assigned a group of men and women with at least one year of strength-training experience to either a six-meal or a three-meal a day group.
They trained four days per week for 12 weeks using the same strength-training program, giving each muscle group one heavy session and one light session per week.
Contrary to what you might expect, the three-meal group actually gained more muscle than the six-meal group.
But when I looked at the research in detail, the results weren’t as exciting as they first appeared.
The first problem is that the study was presented at a conference (12th Annual Congress of the European College of Sport Science in Jyväskylä, Finland) and not published in a journal. Important information about how the study was done is not normally included in conference proceedings, and sometimes the way a study is set up can render the results totally irrelevant.
The second problem is that calorie intake was self reported, which means that the subjects simply wrote down what they ate each day. The researchers then used these food diaries to estimate the calorie intake of each subject.
However, self-reporting is a notoriously inaccurate way to estimate calorie intake, and there’s often a big difference between what people say they eat and what they actually eat.
As well as gaining more muscle, the three-meal group gained more fat than the six-meal group. This raises the possibility that the three-meal group simply ate more calories overall, which is obviously going to have a big impact on the results.
So how many meals is optimal for building muscle?
I’d go with four – three meals plus a protein supplement either before or after your workout. You might do just as well with three (two meals plus a protein shake).
However, a lot of this depends on the individual. The optimal meal frequency for an active male bodybuilder with high caloric needs is going to be different from that of an inactive female half his size.
That’s not to say you can’t lose fat or gain muscle by eating six small meals a day. Plenty of people have done it. But it’s not necessary, or even desirable, as far as improving body composition is concerned.
About Christian FinnChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.