Meal frequency is an interesting topic in the fitness world. If you ask most people, they’ll agree that frequent small meals are the best choice for a healthy lifestyle. Others will say that as long as you’re in an appropriate energy balance then it doesn’t matter. I wanted to take a quick look at the science to see what the evidence supports. I’ll try to keep this post short and sweet even though I have a passion for ridiculously long posts.
Meal timing is mostly dictated by social norms. You grow up eating breakfast (hopefully), lunch, and dinner. Sometimes a late-night snack. When you go to work you get a lunch break, maybe 30-60 minutes then back to work. On top of that you’re probably busy which means you’ll be eating at your desk. All of these social cues factor into how many meals we eat.
The most recent data (Longnecker 1997) shows the average American eats ~3.5 meals per day. I’d speculate this number is relatively unchanged since the analysis was done in the late 80s, but even if it has changed the average would probably still fall between 3-4 meals per day.
There are numerous studies suggesting a negative correlation between meal frequency and body weight. This can be interpreted as less meals equals more weight. However, when you subtract confounding factors like under-reporting food intake, dieting, and exercise you get a different picture. Thinking about this from a practical standpoint – let’s say all the “healthy” or “fit” people you know – most of them probably eat more than 3 meals a day. Does that mean it’s causing them to be healthier? Or do they eat that way because someone said it was the right way? Or better yet, could they eat fewer meals per day?
For the sake of time and space – I’m going to narrow the science down a bit. I’ll be focusing on non-obese healthy people. These aren’t elite athletes or bodybuilders on drugs. I tried to find studies that were relatable to normal people.
The fundamental idea is eating more meals will “stoke your metabolism”. In science this is referred to as the thermic effect of food, aka diet induced thermogenesis (DIT). Yet, multiple studies have found no difference in 1 meal vs 2 meals per day if they both contain the same amount of calories [1,2]. To add to this finding, another group measured the difference between two meals and three meals and also found no difference in diet induced thermogenesis . Basically, there is a ton of data showing an increase in meal frequency doesn’t elevate metabolic rate or “ramp up your metabolism”.
The other factor in meal frequency is hunger. We all get hangry from time to time – it’s real and it sucks. But what does the evidence say about hunger? Well, it’s conflicted. Most studies report no difference in hunger between people who eat one or multiple meals a day [4,5]. However, some research suggests that eating more frequently may decrease hunger. From a practical standpoint it makes sense to eat more meals if you get hungry so you don’t overeat at a single meal. Otherwise, eat for your current goals.
Cumulatively, the research suggests that increased meal frequency does not play a role in gaining or losing weight. The obesity epidemic is real – but it’s likely due to higher caloric values in meals and reduced physical activity rather than the sheer number of meals.
– Eat the number of meals that works for you.
– Try to incorporate 20-30g of protein at each meal.
– You know you need vegetables. Eat them.
– If you fail to plan, plan to fail. Don’t binge eat.
If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or contact me via Facebook!
1. Smeets, Astrid J., and Margriet S. Westerterp-Plantenga. “Acute Effects on Metabolism and Appetite Profile of One Meal Difference in the Lower Range of Meal Frequency.” British Journal of Nutrition 99, no. 06 (June 2008): 1316–21. doi:10.1017/S0007114507877646.
2. Kinabo, J. L., and J. V. Durnin. “Effect of Meal Frequency on the Thermic Effect of Food in Women.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 44, no. 5 (May 1990): 389–95.
3. Cameron, Jameason D., Marie-Josée Cyr, and Eric Doucet. “Increased Meal Frequency Does Not Promote Greater Weight Loss in Subjects Who Were Prescribed an 8-Week Equi-Energetic Energy-Restricted Diet.” The British Journal of Nutrition 103, no. 8 (April 2010): 1098–1101. doi:10.1017/S0007114509992984.
4. Verboeket-van de Venne, W. P., and K. R. Westerterp. “Influence of the Feeding Frequency on Nutrient Utilization in Man: Consequences for Energy Metabolism.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 45, no. 3 (March 1991): 161–69.
5. Tai, M. M., P. Castillo, and F. X. Pi-Sunyer. “Meal Size and Frequency: Effect on the Thermic Effect of Food.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 54, no. 5 (November 1991): 783–87.