If you involve yourself in enough conversations with people, regardless of their formal education levels, about how changing your meal frequency can impact your health and success at achieving your goals, you will no doubt hear several times that eating more frequently is the key to losing fat and weight overall. What is unique about this widely shared perspective is that very little research exists to support this ideal.
Initial research performed in the 1960s had people report how many times they ate each day while also recording their caloric intake and body weight (Fabry, Hejl et al. 1964; Hejda and Fabry 1964). Associations were found that those people who ate more frequently tended to have lower body weights and lower body fat levels (REF). Widespread popularity evolved and now it’s one of the first things you’ll hear about a celebrity doing differently or maybe even your neighbor or a friend at the gym. These findings were challenged when a number of studies were performed that invoked much greater control over important variables and in many situations, the results of these studies indicated that greater meal frequency did not necessarily result in greater reductions in body weight or body fat (Garrow, Durrant et al. 1981; Bellisle, McDevitt et al. 1997; Cameron, Cyr et al. 2010).
For those people who only consider weight loss to be the outcome that matters, these results were troubling, but a recent excellent and comprehensive position statement developed by colleagues associated with the International Society of Sports Nutrition summarized study results looking at the impact of meal frequency on several other important variables as well as athletic populations (La Bounty, Campbell et al. 2011). From this report, the authors reported that modifying meal frequency does not appear to favorably (or negatively for that matter) influence body composition in sedentary populations. Interestingly, when protein intake levels were adequately developed, manipulations in meal frequency do appear to help competitive athletic populations better maintain their fat-free mass levels (REF). This differentiation is key because athletic groups train regularly and stress the body, which results in greater shifts in calories being burned and potentially muscle mass changes occurring.
Most importantly for the healthy, less active, even sedentary populations, a number of studies support extremely favorable changes in markers of our health that over time help to reduce our risk for developing heart disease and its convoluted mess of problems. In particular, results from these studies provided strong indications that increasing meal frequency can reduce LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol as well as insulin levels. More research is needed to identify the changes seen in glucose and insulin management as well as other important markers such as ghrelin, leptin, adiponectin and C-reactive protein (Fontana, Meyer et al. 2004).
Sure, you may only be concerned with being able to see your abs or fitting back into your skinny jeans, but changes in these factors are arguably just as important. Amazingly, some of the initial support for improvements in health after increasing meal frequency was reported by Gwinup and colleagues in the 1960s where they reported improvements in cholesterol and glucose tolerance (Gwinup, Byron et al. 1963; Gwinup, Byron et al. 1963). More controlled studies had both obese and non-obese subjects consumed the same amount of food as either 3 normal meals or 17 snacks across and they reported improvements in total cholesterol (Jenkins, Wolever et al. 1989).
In one of the largest cross-sectional studies, approximately 6,980 men and 7,776 women between the ages of 45-75 years reported average reductions in both total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol when a greater frequency of meals was ingested (Titan, Bingham et al. 2001). To further support these findings, a study involving 2,034 men and women aged 50 – 89 who ate greater than or equal to four times per day had significantly lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol when compared to people who ate less frequently (Edelstein, Barrett-Connor et al. 1992). Finally, in an extremely well-controlled study with a washout period, all participants consumed two patterns of food and when the same calories were ingested as three meals versus one meal, significantly lower levels of blood pressure as well as total and LDL cholesterol were found (Stote, Baer et al. 2007).
In closing, scientific findings that support greater weight loss or fat loss as a result of increasing meal frequency are scarce, particularly those in which adequate scientific controls were used to clearly identify the intended outcomes. But, a number of studies support a greater meal frequency to improve glucose control, insulin levels, blood pressure, LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol. Furthermore, additional studies also suggest that a greater meal frequency may also aid in improving appetite and controlling hunger. Whether or not, this eating strategy may help you to lose weight, the health benefits which can be achieved are important to consider.
-Dr. Chad Kerksick is an Assistant Professor of Exercise Science at Lindenwood University with a PhD in Exercise, Nutrition and Preventive Health. His research and expertise center upon study the impact of exercise and nutrition interventions on health and performance. You can follow him on Twitter at @chadkerksick.
Bellisle, F., R. McDevitt, et al. (1997). “Meal frequency and energy balance.” Brit J Nutr 77 Suppl 1: S57-70.
Cameron, J. D., M. J. Cyr, et al. (2010). “Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet.” Brit J Nutr 103(8): 1098-1101.
Edelstein, S. L., E. L. Barrett-Connor, et al. (1992). “Increased meal frequency associated with decreased cholesterol concentrations; Rancho Bernardo, CA, 1984-1987.” Am J Clin Nutr 55(3): 664-669.
Fabry, P., Z. Hejl, et al. (1964). “The Frequency of Meals. Its Relation to Overweight, Hypercholesterolaemia, and Decreased Glucose-Tolerance.” Lancet 2(7360): 614-615.
Fontana, L., T. E. Meyer, et al. (2004). “Long-term calorie restriction is highly effective in reducing the risk for atherosclerosis in humans.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 101(17): 6659-6663.
Garrow, J. S., M. Durrant, et al. (1981). “The effect of meal frequency and protein concentration on the composition of the weight lost by obese subjects.” Brit J Nutr 45(1): 5-15.
Gwinup, G., R. C. Byron, et al. (1963). “Effect of nibbling versus gorging on glucose tolerance.” Lancet 2(7300): 165-167.
Gwinup, G., R. C. Byron, et al. (1963). “Effect of Nibbling Versus Gorging on Serum Lipids in Man.” Am J Clin Nutr 13: 209-213.
Hejda, S. and P. Fabry (1964). “Frequency of Food Intake in Relation to Some Parameters of the Nutritional Status.” Nutritio et dieta; European review of nutrition and dietetics 6: 216-228.
Jenkins, D. J., T. M. Wolever, et al. (1989). “Nibbling versus gorging: metabolic advantages of increased meal frequency.” N Engl J Med 321(14): 929-934.
La Bounty, P. M., B. I. Campbell, et al. (2011). “International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: meal frequency.” J Int Soc Sports Nutr 8: 4.
Stote, K. S., D. J. Baer, et al. (2007). “A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults.” Am J Clin Nutr 85(4): 981-988.
Titan, S. M., S. Bingham, et al. (2001). “Frequency of eating and concentrations of serum cholesterol in the Norfolk population of the European prospective investigation into cancer (EPIC-Norfolk): cross sectional study.” Bmj 323(7324): 1286-1288.