This is a question that is not asked very often by the general population, but one that the fitness community is always talking about – meal size and frequency… is there really any right answer?
If you go to almost any gym in the country, maybe even the world, and speak to a personal trainer about when and how often you should eat, you will get the same answer every time – small, regular meals 5-6 times a day.
It’s one of the first things passed down from those trusted to give accurate advice to the less-knowledgeable, and yet embarrassingly it’s not true – or at least if your goal is fat-loss.
If you’ve read my fat-loss myth-busting article, then you already know that meal-frequency is irrelevant. But the belief that smaller, more frequent meals is better than 3 meals a day is so wide-spread that I felt it deserved it’s own article – because I know it’s hard to believe one small paragraph over years of everyone else telling you something different.
Where the idea of small, regular meals started
Always a good place to start – why do people believe small, regular meals are beneficial?
First: energy expenditure. Maintenance calories is made up of three energy expenditures: resting (basal metabolic rate), digestive (cals used to digest food), and exercise. People used to believe small, regular meals needed more energy to digest – but in fact all studies say the same thing – digestive energy expenditure is only affected by total calorie and macro-nutrient intake. So this is wrong.
Second: In the 1960’s there was plenty of research pointing towards a strong relationship between meal-frequency and body-weight. Many studies were performed, and nearly all suggested that when eating the same amounts, leaner people tended to have smaller, more frequent meals than their overweight counter-parts. Evidence for this was found across the board – men and women, children to pensioners. So you can forgive people for suddenly thinking, ‘why are we eating 3 meals a day? 6 is clearly better!’ – I would have done the same.
But this is where it goes pear-shaped, and the main reason so many myths are created. If you just take the data and analyse as it is, straight from survey sheet to database – then you might have one relationship. But if you consider psychology and other factors, and then hold them against the data – you can get a completely different trend (often more accurate) – or wipe others out.
This was the case with this research.
Where it should have stopped
A common problem with diet studies is that people nearly always say they have eaten less than they actually have. Whether intentional or otherwise – it is a well known psychological phenomenon – and one that was in play during the 1960s. When researchers (Summerbell et al) did the same study in 1996, they analysed two sets of data on the side – the diet people in the study claimed they ate, and the exact diet that they actually had.
When the people who’s claimed diet didn’t match the actual data were removed from the study – all the trends of meal-frequency to body-weight disappeared. Essentially, voiding the so-called findings of the 60s. The same study was repeated with different groups with the same result each time. There was absolutely no relationship between the amount of meals eaten in a day, and body-weight.
Along with this finding, other studies being performed at the time found no relationship at all between meal-frequency and weight-loss when examining individuals who were actively dieting (maintaining a caloric deficit).
Contrary to the idea of small meals being beneficial, recent research has actually shown the opposite to be true!
A 2010 study found that increased meal frequency may actually increase hunger, and make it more difficult for dieting individuals to stay on track and lose weight.
Another study performed in 2010, found that high meal frequency could be damaging to your health – causing higher blood glucose levels. The study also found signs of increased insulin resistance (bad), and potential glucose intolerance (very bad) in individuals who ate more often than their counter-parts consuming the same diet. If that doesn’t mean much to you – it means that high-frequency meals could lead to a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes.
For the muscle-bound
All the information so far has been about meal-frequency and body-weight, but I haven’t said anything about protein-frequency and muscle-mass. Mostly because a straight answer is hard to give.
My personal opinion is that meal-frequency is pretty much irrelevant to maximizing muscle mass, and that the most important thing is getting enough calories, particularly from carbohydrates and protein. The best current theory in nutritional literature (based on various studies and scientific nous) is that getting your daily protein within 4-6 meals, with 4-5 hours in between is the optimal way of maximizing protein synthesis (which is necessary to gain muscle).
I don’t know though; whether it’s because 5-6 meals is something I did and hated for so long, or because I know that cavemen had no problem gaining muscle without any kind of consistent meal frequency.. I’m set on 2-3 meals a day. The difference is likely very small anyway, and if you’re not trying to become a pro bodybuilder, I don’t think you should worry about it. I would avoid just one massive meal a day as well as it’s pretty hard on your digestive system getting all your calories in one go.
If you want a good example of why meal frequency is not important, I recently saw an interview with Manu Tuilagi (England rugby player).. you’d probably agree that he’s pretty built. And he only eats twice a day – skips breakfast (like all the cool kids). Considering the results he gets performing at such a high level, I wouldn’t worry about meal-frequency affecting your gains.