If your goals are to be healthy, lose weight, or to build muscle, consuming 6 meals per day is the most optimal dietary approach. Period.
Many fitness gurus, fitness experts, registered dietitians and even some medical doctors suggest the 6-meal-per-day diet. If all these folks recommend such an approach, it must be the best and only way, right? Many claim this boosts one’s metabolism and increases the burning of body fat.
In the fitness world, it’s fairly common for people to hold onto a belief or dogma without much thought as to why. These beliefs are often slightly incorrect or just plain false.
Today I’d like to present you with some information, encourage you to look at it for yourself and then make your own decisions. Make your own choices after you’ve looked at some research.
All this takes is the willingness to open your mind, think freely and consider other ideas and possibilities. This is what I did over 2 years ago as I discuss in my article about meal frequency.
Conversations on the Internet
A few weeks ago, I checked my feed reader to find an interesting article on a website I hadn’t frequented in some time. The article is aptly titled I Eat Very Little, Yet I Can’t Seem To Lose This Weight! As you read on, Erin, states in her first point that eating more frequently is the answer to someone’s weight loss woes.
Quote from the first point:
You eat less than three times per day. Eating less often does not help you win the weight-loss battle! Eating often is the key! Think of your body like a furnace; you have to feed it something in order to burn. Your metabolism starts to slow if you do not eat at least every three to five hours. Many people are afraid to eat more often if they are having difficulty losing weight; however, I promise that you are only making it harder on yourself if you eat infrequently.
She actually wrote a post on her blog about artificial sweeteners and some of the myths associated with them that I really liked.
Now, some might say I have no business arguing on the internet with a registered dietitian simply because I have no specialized degree in nutrition or health systems.
However, I am adamant about looking at arguments and ideas from all angles, looking at research as well as what’s happening in the real world to form my own ideas and make my stance. In the past, before I began my education, I made decisions based solely on someone else’s word or unsubstantiated claims that were made in the locker room or in some magazine.
I’m proud to say that I’ve met many people who’ve encouraged and challenged me to look at research, be skeptical, and seek out the truth with due diligence. I have Lyle, Alan, Jamie, Martin and Ryan to thank for prodding me along.
A Look at Some Research
Before I get into this, I must preface that this will be nothing like the AARR (not to be confused with the AARP). If you’re into looking at research in a way that is easy to understand plus completely readable and enjoyable, check out Alan’s monthly research review. You will not be disappointed.
In case some of you hadn’t noticed, the New York Times did a nice little write-up back in March about the big issue regarding meal frequency.
One thing I’ve learned when scouring the many pages of pubmed and medline, is one must take into account the date studies were published. As technology improves, it only makes sense that studies are going to be more accurate and precise as time goes on.
The first study from the NYTimes article I want to look at discusses nibbling versus gorging. According to the study, 7 men were fed metabolically identical diets except some were fed three meals while others were fed 17 snacks (hence the nibbling). The experiment consisted of 2 weeks and thus proved the nibbling diet to be better in terms of reducing fasting serum concentrations of cholesterol. This particular study was also conducted in 1989.
Another study from 1987 took 8 subjects and fed them 1 meal per day over a 2 week period and then did the same experiment with 5 meals per day. Changes in body weight were statistically insignificant and the results demonstrated that meal frequency did not influence energy balance.
There was a study done in the British Journal of Nutrition in 1997 called meal frequency and energy balance. According to the data, the study concluded that there is no evidence that meal frequency influences weight loss on a hypoenergetic diet. If you want an in-depth look at this particular study, check out Lyle’s research review.
And finally, the most recent research paper I know of suggests that a frequency of 3 meals or 3 meals plus 3 snacks poses no difference in weight lost in 8 obese women and 8 obese women over an 8 week period on an equi-energetic, energy-restricted diet.
So here we have 3 studies, all in which were conducted periodically over a significant span of time (20+ years) all yielding similar results. So what we do know, and I feel we can finally put to rest, is that meal frequency has no real bearing upon whether or not we get results when trying to lose weight. Total calorie intake for the day is what truly matters.
Does eating frequently stoke the metabolic fire? Does it in the sense that it speeds up one’s metabolism? I think not.
As long as you’re hitting your macronutrient goals for the day, the frequency in which you get them into your body are minor details.
Intermittent Fasting and Safety
Here’s a bit of the commentary:
Lena: There are plenty of dogmas out there about fasting too. Fasting isn’t something that should be encouraged to the general public. I would imagine that an average person with kids and a job would find it much more difficult to fast than to eat 6 times a day. Eating normally and healthfully is much more important than trying to trick our bodies by fasting.
When Beyonce loses 20 pounds on the Master Cleanse diet, fasting starts to sound sexy. I respect fasting for spiritual or religious reasons, but doing it for weight loss or detoxification is counterproductive. We cannot fully function when we are running on empty and our liver, kidneys, lungs, and skin do the job of getting rid of toxins.
Now first of all, there’s clearly some misunderstanding about fasting when looking at her reply. First of all, I am somewhat in agreement with her when she said we shouldn’t encourage it to the general public. The reason I agree in part is because we’re all so accustomed to eating 2-3 meals per day.
I don’t particularly believe it would go over too well if we just started telling people to only eat every other day or to eat all their meals in a 4-8 hour window every day. At first, this would seem absurd because fasting just isn’t presented to or talked about much with the general public. Now, I think it could be suggested to the general public if we first educate them and explain how it could potentially help them develop some better dietary habits. Who wants to help me get booked on the Oprah Show?
It’s evident in her remarks about tricking our bodies by fasting that she is merely uninformed about intermittent fasting, just like the rest of the general population.
One research paper I want to bring up is a study done on Islamic athletes who participate in the religious fasting rituals during the month-long diurnal Ramadan fasts. In short, for those unfamiliar with this religious practice, Muslims will not eat any food from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan. All their consumption has to take place after the sun sets and before it rises.
According to the abstract, as long as the athletes are practicing sensible eating and sleeping patterns, any negative consequences affecting their performance, competitiveness and high intensity activities are hardly an issue.
You must also keep in mind that these are competitive athletes, not your typical American with a desk job who works out every now and then. If they can handle fasting without ill-effect, I’m sure we’re more than capable of going a little longer than we’re used to without food.
Finally, I’d like to point out where Skyler Tanner and Michael Miller swoop in like Batman and Robin to add their two cents. Skyler points out some interesting studies in which intermittent fasting can help improve biomarkers as well as help one to lose fat relatively struggle-free.
Simple Benefits from Fasting
One more point I’d like to mention is how convenient lowering your meal frequency from 6-8 meals to 2-4 meals per day can be. As Michael pointed out here, fasting helped free him from the bonds of the meal-preparing, Tupperware-toting slavery he once knew. He also did a good job of explaining intermittent fasting in a no-nonsense, easy to understand fashion for all those who land on John’s page in search of the Beyonce-lose-20-pounds-master-cleanse-diet.
If you’re new here and have not read my meal frequency article, I’d encourage you to do so. It just might change your ideas about fasting and it could possibly change your view on a lot of this diet and body composition-related dogma we’re so accustomed to.
My encouragement to you regarding your pursuit for truth is to always keep an open mind, do your own research and don’t just take someone’s word for the final answer, even if they’re the president of biomolecular studies of flea-infested field mice. Science is always changing and new discoveries are always being made. There will be more studies on meal frequency and it’s likely they’ll discover something we’ve never thought of before. Respect the fact that there are no absolutes.
Dig around, challenge others ideas and learn through the process. This is how I completely changed my dietary habits, revamped my approach to diet and re-established a healthy relationship with food.
Always question everything.
So what about you? How do you feel or go about the meal frequency issue?
 Jenkins, DJ, et al. “Nibbling versus Gorging: Metabolic Advantages of Increased Meal Frequency.” N Engl J Med. 1989 Oct 5;321(14):929-34.
 Wolfram, G., M. Kirchgessner, HL Müller, and S. Hollomey. “Thermogenesis in Humans after Varying Meal Time Frequency.” Ann Nutr Metab. 1987;31(2):88-97.
 Bellislea, France, Regina McDevitta, and Andrew M. Prenticea. “Meal Frequency and Energy Balance.” British Journal of Nutrition (1997), 77:S57-S70 Cambridge University Press.
 Cameron, JC, MJ Cyr, and E. Doucet. “Meal Frequency and Energy Balance.” Br J Nutr. 2010 Apr;103(8):1098-101. Epub 2009 Nov 30.