“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”
“More meals speed up your metabolism!”
“If you skip breakfast, it will make you fat”
Meal frequency is a hotly debated topic…
But people don’t realize how much freedom of choice they actually have on this one.
A lot of research has been done on it, and even more is ongoing. I think it’s sufficient to say that there is still more to learn before an absolute answer can be given on how often we should eat, but there are some things we do know with high certainty.
There are a lot of opinions out there about how to go about consuming food throughout the day. Most of which are likely imperfect in at least some way, but that said, it is reasonable to say that there is enough evidence to identify that some ways of going about it are much less wrong than the others. Although we wish to see perfection in our position on something, being less wrong (or more correct) than the most anyone else is a pretty good place to be. Especially if that approach not only works well for you, but can easily integrate into the lifestyle of others. If it gets results, and others can execute it for themselves and obtain similar results also, you can bet that you are onto something valuable.
I want to share what some of the biggest claims that get thrown around are and how they stack up against what we actually know about meal frequency from the research, how it actually pans out in real life, and what kind of results to expect.
Why are we even talking about meal frequency?
There is one venture that humans engage in that one for one seems to always bring about a conversation about when to eat how much food.
This is a no brainer since restricting calories tends to have this incredible effect on us that causes us to quickly become very interested in the food we are eating on a daily basis.
Of course in order to achieve meaningful weight loss over time; the laws of energy balance dictate success or failure. One might bring about the logic that meal frequency can’t impact the results of this endeavor, and this is true, research clearly shows that meal frequency has no impact on weight change.1 2
When this is not true is when the meal pattern we have chosen affects diet adherence and causes us to change calorie intake. In this sense, depending on individual factors meal frequency can make all the difference for weight loss.
Eating less energy than we expend through activity is an absolute requirement, we know this, but hunger isn’t a fun game, and nobody wants to feel like they are starving themselves. Finding the right meal frequency for you that ensures diet adherence is more important than any of the minor details you may hear about.
This can be managed…
The suffering doesn’t have to happen…
Once you learn the things that you can dictate about meal frequency you can find a routine that works for you, on your terms, on your schedule. A style of eating that follows the rules of energy balance, but fits your preferences.
Eating more often throughout the day does not speed up your metabolism. 3
This one is something you may have heard from just about anyone handing out diet advice, and it has been hypothesized many times by researchers and nutritional professionals. Luckily, this is one that has been put to rest.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus performed a study on healthy men and women between the ages of 18-60 years old with the aim of determining whether or not more frequent meals (3 versus 6 per day) had an impact on fat oxidation rates and overall metabolism and hunger.
These researchers found that there was no difference in energy expenditure or perceived fullness between the two groups, but in fact the group eating smaller more frequent meals experience more hunger and “desire to eat” than the group eating fewer larger meals.
This means that we get to choose how many meals we want, and whether or not they are large or small. It also lends a warning that if hunger or the desire to eat is a problem between meals… than it might be a good idea to go with fewer more calorie dense meals rather than a bunch of little snack-like ones. Else things could get ugly.
Fewer meals won’t make you lose muscle. 4
There is this huge fear about skipping meals…
All the gym goers think they could lose their gains if they wait too long to eat.
A valid concern… I for one don’t want to; we work hard to get those precious gains.
Ultimately though, when it comes to lean mass retention it isn’t the meal frequency that is most important. As a matter of fact, this is actually kind of old news…
Back in 1981 The Nutrition Society performed a study to determine whether or not meal frequency or protein concentration had any impact on fat loss. The results showed there to be no evidence that either effected fat loss but also gave another detail. When the protein was held constant at a higher ratio, this resulted in better lean mass retention than the lower protein ratio.
There’s no lack of research on the association between high protein and muscle retention, but this study did well to show how much more important protein intake was than meal frequency for retaining muscle while losing fat.
So as long as you keep your protein up, you can rest easy, your sweet sweet gains are safe while you are dropping some fat to show them off.
Pre and Post workout
If you are on a fitness routine of any kind, fat loss or otherwise, it’s likely that you work out.
It’s pretty general knowledge that when you engage in exercise you should eat some food in the hours following the workout. This is true to a degree but people often get it in their heads that the need to pound food right after any amount of training.
The thing that should be given attention here is the intensity level of the workout. If you are weightlifting or interval training, these are very intense and muscle breakdown occurs during and after they take place.
This is a normal part of training and your body repairs this damage and then some in the hours after training. In order to keep the breakdown of muscle tissue from getting out of control during an intense workout (or after), your body needs a supply of protein molecules.
Research5 Shows essential amino acids provide specifically what is needed. These are not hard to find, they are in most foods containing protein. If you are in a circumstance where you don’t want eat until later you could also choose to supplement with 10-15 grams prior to your workout in either powder, liquid or capsule form.
There is enough data to make it pretty clear that if you train hard, protein in the hours before and after your workout are a good idea, or for fasted training amino acids before and then protein sometime within a couple hours after.
If you rocking an empty stomach and happen to find yourself doing something that would be considered low intensity like a walk or something similar, don’t stress it. You don’t have to run for the protein afterwards.
Fasting is definitely okay…
Fasting has some bold claims behind it. Search “Intermittent fasting” online and you will encounter some claims that make it out to be the holy grail of fitness.
While outlandish claims in the health and fitness space are usually backed by false truths, I think this one is just blown out of proportion a bit.
Research6 shows that fasting actually causes a process to take place in the body that is essential for maintaining muscle mass.
So it looks promising in that there aren’t any negatives that seem to be associated with it.
My take on fasting…
Fasting can be a powerful tool if you struggle with calorie intake.
All potential fat loss or health benefits aside, If you do well fasting and it helps with diet adherence I say go for it.
I for one tend to take fat loss very seriously in that I recognize that it is difficult, and sometimes unpleasant for at least a portion of the time. When I diet for fat loss I typically go with the most aggressive calorie deficit that makes sense for my goals and try to get the whole process over with as quickly as possible. I want to get to goal fast.
Only I have this thing where I get very hungry at night. It’s probably not normal and most likely all in my head, but I go a little bonkers if I don’t have calorie dense meals late into the evening. I know for a fact that if I try to ignore this, I end up overeating for the day.
The only problem is the reduced calories required for the deficit. There aren’t enough calories to have more than one or two big meals. In order to manage this I simply fast for the majority of day, essentially saving up calories, then plan out everything I need in terms of calories and macronutrients for the short eating window that takes place 6-8 hours before bed.
This is what works for me. You can take this information and use it to design your meals in a way that works for you and your goal.
You may have noticed that the majority of the items covered in the article show that meal frequency isn’t so much about what you have to do, or have to avoid doing, but rather a release from the baseless rules you may believe you have to follow about when to eat.
If you took something away from this that you didn’t know previously, enjoy your newfound freedom of meal frequency and crush your weight loss goals.
Thanks for reading!
If you like my take on this, have questions or something to add to it, comment below or feel free to reach out to me via email or social media.
I’ll always do my best to help 🙂
- Palmer MA,Capra S, Baines SK. School of Public Health, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia and the School of Health Sciences, Newcastle University, Callaghan, New South Wales, Australia. Nutr Rev 2009;67:379-390 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19566598
- Iwao S ,Mori K, Sato Y. First Division of Health Promotion Science, Graduate School of Medicine, Nagoya University, Japan. Scand J Med Sci Sports 1996;6:265-272 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8960647
- Kazunori Ohkawara, Marc-Andre Cornier, Wendy M, Kohrt, Edward L. Melanson. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Feb; 21(2): 336–343 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4391809/
- Garrow JS, Durrant M, Blaza S, Wilkins D, Royston P, Sunkin S. The effect of meal frequency and protein concentration on the composition of the weight lost by obese subjects. BR J Nutr 1981;45:5-15 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7470437
- Tipton KD1, Ferrando AA, Phillips SM, Doyle D Jr, Wolfe RR. Postexercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. Metabolism Unit, Shriners Burns Institute, and Departments of Surgery and Anesthesiology, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas 77550, USA. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10198297
- Masiero E1, Agatea L, Mammucari C, Blaauw B, Loro E, Komatsu M, Metzger D, Reggiani C, Schiaffino S, Sandri M. Autophagy is Required to maintain muscle mass. Dulbecco Telethon Institute, 35129 Padova, Italy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19945408
- Bergamini E1, Cavallini G, Donati A, Gori Z. The role of autophagy in aging: its essential part in the anti-aging mechanism of caloric restriction. Centro di Ricerca di Biologia e Patologia dell’Invecchiamento, Dipartimento di Patologia Sperimentale-Scuola Medica, Via Roma 55, 56123 Pisa, Italy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17934054