Five To Six Meals A Day? Myth: Debunked
By Paul A Hovan Jr., B.S., CPT, CSN
You’ve heard it time and time again, “eat five meals a day to lose more fat.” “You HAVE to eat at least five times a day to get the best fat loss results.” “Five meals a day enables your body to not be in a catabolic state.” “Eating smaller meals throughout the day, will help speed up your metabolism.” “Eating five to six times a day, will ensure a constant flow of amino acids to muscles ensuring no catabolism.” The opinions and myths you’ve heard are countless, and truth be told, there’s little, if any science or proven studies showing that you need to eat five to seven meals a day to get better fat loss. In fact, there are studies showing the complete opposite.
You can certainly do the research yourself, but many studies show that “there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency.” The results demonstrate that the meal frequency did not influence the energy balance, and “the amount of food eaten, but not the pattern with which it is ingested, has a major influence on energy balance during mild food restriction.” There was a review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that showed there was no real weight loss advantage to eating six meals a day. Another study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that there was no weight loss difference between dieters who ate their calories in three meals a day or six meals a day.
Another theory you may hear quite often is that eating five to six meals a day will help keep your blood sugar levels stable. There is also little, if any science to back this claim up as well. Now there are cases of hypoglycemia, but unless you are a diabetic, our bodies are very efficient at regulating blood sugar itself and there is no need to eat constantly. Lyndel Costain, a registered dietician (RD), states that, “we can actually go a long time without eating. Assuming you’ve had a reasonable meal, you can go four to five hours without eating. Your blood sugar won’t go down so low that you have a hypoglycemic event, unless you have a genuine problem with your blood sugar.”
One of the biggest claims as to why you should eat five to six meals a day is the concept of TEF. TEF stands for the thermic effect of food. When you eat something, digestion begins in the mouth, and once it is mechanically digested, it moves through the digestive tract. The nutrients you consumed are then transported from the gut to the blood, and then are distributed throughout the body. All of these processes require energy (calories) that can be measured after the meal is consumed. The thermic effect of food is this increase in energy expenditure after the meal. However, people take TEF way out of context. People continue to claim that you’ll burn hundreds of more calories by eating many smaller meals throughout the day because of TEF, but in reality, the thermic effect of food only accounts for a very minimal 6-10% of your total calories expended. The majority of your expended calories will come from your resting metabolic rate (accounts for about 70%) and the energy you expend during physical activity (accounts for about 20%).
In my experience, the reason most of us consume many meals throughout the day is because eating fibrous vegetables and protein help keep you fuller for a longer period of time, eating more frequently will often help curb cravings and binge eating, and the fact that you’re eating so often gives you a sense of, “I’m not starving all day long.” Another reason is that, when you’re trying to gain muscle mass, you need to eat a lot. Say you’re caloric intake to gain muscle is 4,500 calories per day. It is VERY difficult to consume that much food in only three meals. That’s 1,500 calories per meal. Anyone who has tried doing that will certainly tell you they are left very uncomfortable after the meal and might’ve had digestive distress from all of the food. It’s much easier to consume that amount of calories spread out throughout the day in five to seven smaller meals.
Regardless of how many times a day you eat, the ultimate factor that is going to determine your success of weight loss or weight gain is your total amount of energy (calories) consumed. Listen ladies and gentleman, the science of weight loss and weight gain hasn’t dramatically changed over the past hundred years. If you eat fewer calories than you expend, you will lose weight. If you eat more calories than you expend, you will gain weight. It’s quite simple. Anyone who tells you differently does not know the basic science behind muscle physiology and energy metabolism. I enjoy Dr. Layne Norton’s work he does on metabolism, training, and nutrition, and he once said something to the effect of, ‘it doesn’t matter if you like science or hate science; it’s what is right.’ We continue to try and find ways to enhance fat loss, the latest on muscle growth and what training programs are best. Anything to help us gain an edge, but whatever science has found to be right thus far, is what is right. Hippocrates states, “Science is the father of knowledge, but opinion breeds ignorance.” Think about it.
So there it is. Eat however many times a day you want; three, five, six, eight… that’s up to you. What you need to make sure of is the total amount of calories you are eating; that is what appears to be the most important aspect in weight loss and weight gain. If you decided that 2,000 calories is the amount you need to consume to lose weight, and you have a very busy schedule that enables you to only eat three times a day, then eat three meals that consist of 667 calories each with the proper amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrate. If you feel you should be eating six times a day because you feel ‘better’ or more ‘full’ throughout the day doing so, then eat six meals consisting of 333 calories each. It doesn’t much matter. Find out what works best for you and then do it.
NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, Fourth Edition