I am sure you have been told about trying to eat little and often versus fewer, big meals in order to help lose weight. Something the lines of ‘eat five to six small meals per day’. This style of eating, commonly referred to as the frequent feeding model, is popular with everyone from dietitians to bodybuilders and has been repeated so often for so long that it’s generally taken as fact.
But it’s not.
It is often touted that you should “graze” throughout the day, eat quite often to maintain a high metabolism, burn more calories, and provide frequent protein to prevent your body from dipping into a muscle wasting state.
Theoretically, this idea is fine: since eating increases your metabolic rate, the more often you eat, the more your metabolic rate will be elevated.
But this does not take into account the variability in people’s lifestyles and their time constraints and other commitments that may get in the way of eating 5 to 6 meals per day. So in order to figure out how often you should be eating, here’s what you need to know to figure out the best number of meals you should be enjoying each day.
Does Eating More Often Burn More Calories?
Every time you put food in your mouth, you burn calories. Our bodies need to work hard to break down the food we eat.
Going a bit farther, we know that the amount of energy you burn to break down the food we eat depends on the food you eat. This is known as the thermic effect of food. Protein is the food that needs the most energy to breakdown, digest, and put to use compared to carbohydrates or fat. Around 30 percent of the calories you eat from protein are burned during the digestion and processing of those foods. Hence, why diets with protein are so great; the more protein you eat, the more calories you burn.
Carbohydrates need slightly less energy to breakdown (about 6 to 8 percent burned), and fats need the least (about 4 percent burned) despite being the highest in calories.
Therefore, if eating requires energy, then eating more frequently would require energy to be burned more frequently—resulting in more calories being burned.
The reality is that your body doesn’t care about how many meals you eat. You can choose how often you want to eat every day.
Rather, the thermic effect of food is directly proportional to the amount of calories you eatand the types of foods you eat. If, at the end of the day, caloric intake and food choice is the same, there will be no metabolic difference between eating six meals or three. In fact, as long as the total calories are the same, you can eat ten meals or one meal and you’ll still get the same metabolic effect.
So if you’re looking to eat 1,800 calories per day, it doesn’t matter if it’s separated into three 600-calorie meals or six 300-calorie meals. It is the composition of your meals that really matter.
Does It Fit Your Lifestyle?
The main thing to consider when it comes to your diet is whether it is one that is sustainable for you and fits your lifestyle. With regard to energy balance and thermic effect of food, you can really eat as many meals—or as few—as you want. Your body primarily functions based on how much you eat, the composition of what you eat, and the sources of food you select, all of which is your choice when it comes to portioning each day.
This is why you need to take a realistic approach to your eating habits. If eating little and often works best for you and your schedule, then you should cater to your preferences. But if you prefer fewer, larger meals, then you shouldn’t feel that you couldn’t change your body with that approach.
My advice? Worry more about what you’re eating as opposed to when or how often. Many thoughts on the “need” for breakfast or problems with eating late at night at just perpetuated myths that won’t have a real impact on how you look and feel. Removing the perceived complications of “dieting” will help you to feel more empowered and in control that you can eat in a way that isn’t a burden and will increase your belief that you can achieve your fitness goals.