This is a Get Shredded Public Service Anouncement: eat 7 smalls meals per day and you rev up your metabolism to burn more fat. It is the easiest trick in the book to get shredded.
This just in!: Fasting increases fat oxidation. Eat 1 time per day and optimize fat burning and get lean eating whatever you want.
Uh oh. We have a major problem. These are mutually exslusive ideas about how to optimize meal frequency for fat loss.
There is a lot of hyperbole circulating the mainstream media about the supposed “metabolic advantages” of modulating your meal frequency.
Let’s cut the pseudoscientific, marketing nonsense and get down to the science of meal frequency.
Meal Frequency Exposed
First things first, using the term meal frequency is kind of stuffy and academic, so let’s just call it what it is. Meal frequency just means how many times a day you eat.
Now we need to breakdown some of the ideas behind the two conflicting approaches to meal frequency: eating a few large meals versus eating more frequent smaller meals.
Low Meal Frequency Myths
Eating fewer, larger meals reduces insulin levels
There is this idea floating around that reducing food intake to one time per day can improve body fat by lowering insulin levels longer. Diets proposing lower meal frequency (i.e. intermittent fasting) often provide lower insulin levels as one of the benefits.
That idea itself is shaky at best and most likely flat out wrong. Regardless of that, it is also likely that the once per day approach doesn’t even reduce insulin levels.
For example, eating one meal per day has actually shown higher levels of daily insulin than consuming two meals per day in mice.1
Eating fewer, larger meals increases fat utilization for fuel
Another claim of lower meal frequency (ala intermittent fasting) is increased fat oxidation. Well that has also been squashed in a clinical trial. You know, one of those things where really smart people spend a ton of time and energy controlling a study to see if something works or not.
In the trial they showed that 2 weeks of intermittent fasting had no effect on effect on lipolysis (fat breakdown). Interestingly there was also no benefit to carbohydrate or protein metabolism either.2
That is two strikes right there. There is no magical effect on insulin and, even if there was, it wouldn’t matter because insulin isn’t the sole dictator of fat oxidation and fat loss.3
Fewer, Larger Meals in the Real World
When strategies like intermittent fasting (eating 1 meal per day) are used in real world settings, they can have a small effect on weight loss, but usually make adherence difficult.
For example, a study showed that 1 meal per day had a very small improvement in body composition over an 8 week period. However, the 1 meal per day approach made people hungrier and more likely to eat more in the future, showing that it may not be a sustainable approach.4
Clearly, the data doesn’t support strategies like intermittent fasting being a magical dietary approach to get shredded.
No insulin fairies or secret fat burning biochemical creatures at work here.
The body composition benefits people see from the fewer, larger meals approach likely stem from reducing overall calories.
High Meal Frequency Myths
Eating more often stokes the metabolism
We have all heard that you should eat every 2 hours to “stoke” your metabolism for burning fat. Well just like lowering meal frequency, eating more often has no appreciable effect on fat oxidation.5
So you can eat a lot of small meals throughout the day if you want, but don’t do it because you think it is going to make you burn more fat.
Eating smaller meals more often helps with weight loss
We just laid the “stoked metabolism” myth to bed, so why don’t we also crush this one as well. When calories are held equal, consuming smaller meals more often has no effect on weight loss.6
Eating smaller meals helps control hunger
Interestingly there are diet strategies claiming that eating more often helps avoid hunger, so there may be an advantage to eating more often. It turns out this may not be the case. In fact, consuming 6 meals per day instead of 3 has shown to increase measures of hunger.5
Summarizing the Research
Let's get down to brass tacks, or steel barbells…whatever you prefer. It looks like meal frequency per se doesn’t have an appreciable effect on fat loss.
To sum up decades of research in a single sentence: if calories and macros are equal, you can eat 1 meal per day or 14 meals per day and get the same amount of fat loss.
Meal Frequency in Practice
If you are trying to lose weight, it might be easier to regulate calories by eating fewer meals per day, but some people might also do better snacking.
If you are trying to improve your physique while getting stronger, eating more frequently will likely be a better approach. Just think about it, if you need 4500 calories in a day, it is probably easier eating 6 meals of 750 calories than cramming down 4500 calories at once.
Meal frequency isn’t a silver bullet or the Holy Grail to fat loss.
Depending on your goals and your lifestyle, you can eat either a few large meals or a lot of smaller meals.
Don’t worry about how often you eat. Seriously, not eating every 2 hours isn’t going to “wreck your metabolism” or “ruin your nitrogen balance”.
Instead, worry about the calories, macros, and food quality.
- Differential roles of breakfast only (one meal per day) and a bigger breakfast with a small dinner (two meals per day) in mice fed a high-fat diet with regard to induced obesity and lipid metabolism.
- Intermittent fasting does not affect whole-body glucose, lipid, or protein metabolism.
- Calorie for Calorie, Dietary Fat Restriction Results in More Body Fat Loss than Carbohydrate Restriction in People with Obesity.
- A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults.
- Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger.
- Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet.