For years, eating 6 meals a day was thought to stoke the metabolism by feeding it small frequent meals throughout the day. In fact, the initial research on this was completed way back in 1964 and showed that people who ate more meals per day had lower body weights and better body composition . The concept was thought to work sort of like a fire: If you were going to build a fire, how would you get it burning hot. Do you throw a couple of huge logs on the fire and try to get it burning hot? Or do you put a bunch of small twigs in there and try to get it hot that way? Which way will build a hotter fire? Obviously you want to put lots and lots of small twigs and branches and get it going that way. Throwing a couple of huge logs on there will never build a hot fire, because you won’t ever be able to get it going. Now, think of the fire as your metabolism and the twigs, sticks and logs as meals. This was the concept of 6 small meals a day and why it burns body fat. Makes sense right? Absolutely. Is it true? Not according to science. (I admit, even I was guilty of presenting the benefits of 6 meals a day this way for years. Just because it makes sense, doesn’t mean its correct.)
Since that initial study in 1964, there have been numerous studies on meal frequency and calorie burning/thermogenic response and the results have been all over the board [2-4]. When looking at the greater body of research that has been done since then it becomes clear that it’s not so much the frequency of your meals that matter when it comes to burning fat, but total calories consumed . It comes down to calories in versus calories out, a very basic and obvious concept.
You may be thinking … If this is all that matters why so much stress over the years on small more frequent feedings?
Why does virtually every diet out there to this day still implement smaller more frequent feedings?
So I can just split my calories into three meals instead of six and get the same results?
Not if you want optimal results, and we’ll get to why in just a minute.
The reason you haven’t gotten a straight answer thus far is that some of the recent studies on this subject and subsequent reporting on these studies usually only tell half the story. Some people have been very quick to discount the need for smaller more frequent feedings without considering ALL the benefits this type of meal plan may provide a person looking to get leaner and more muscular (which would mean toned for most women ☺).
Although eating six meals a day may not exactly pan out as the example above indicates, it will benefit you in the long run for a different, yet more important reason: muscle protein synthesis.
Muscle is the most metabolically active tissue in your body, meaning that the more lean muscle tissue you have, the higher your metabolism (the number of calories you can burn) will be. Therefore, it only makes sense to eat in a way that not only preserves the muscle you already have but also to produce new muscle and to further increase your metabolism. This is critically important, especially when you are operating in a calorie deficit.
When you are running on reduced calories your body will begin to look for fuel in other places. The goal is to get your body to go after your stored fat for energy (good), but cut your calories too low, eat too infrequently or do too much exercise and your body will burn muscle for fuel (bad). When your body begins to burn muscle you are deteriorating your body’s ability to burn calories and reducing your overall metabolic capacity. This leads to a slower metabolism overall and rebound weight gain.
How do you stop your body from burning muscle?
Simple … Make sure you are constantly stimulating muscle protein synthesis throughout the day.
Muscle protein synthesis is needed to repair your damaged muscles after tough workouts and to support the direct cause of muscle repair and new muscle growth (which as mentioned before is important to ensure your metabolic capacity is running at full speed). Every time you consume 20-25g of a high-quality protein source like chicken, fish, whey proteins, you are stimulating muscle protein synthesis which lasts for 2-3 hours [5, 6]. After this 2-3 hour window has passed your body will switch over to a catabolic state and begin breaking down your valuable muscle tissue, which in the long term will negatively affect your metabolic capacity.
You should be able to begin to see why it’s not a good idea to eat two larger meals 6 hours apart or even 3 medium meals 4 hours apart … it’s going to cost you in the long run.
So how do you stay in an anabolic state rather than a catabolic state?
You guessed it.
You have to eat small meals containing a minimum of 20-25g of protein every 2-3 hours throughout the day.
By eating small protein based meals every 2-3 hours while you are awake you are ensuring that your body will stay in a constant state of muscle protein synthesis and that your muscles will always be in a recovery or growth state, and not a catabolic state. In the long term, these all add up to positive benefits for your body’s ability to burn fat and more easily maintain a lower body fat level.
This is where the REAL value of eating 6 meals comes into play. Sure, you can debate whether it’s better or not for calorie burning or weight loss changes, but consistent evidence shows that smaller, more frequent feedings of protein are an important factor when it comes to promoting muscle growth. Since muscle is such a strong metabolic force in your body, it needs to be a priority for you to be continuously stimulating muscle protein synthesis if you want to burn the maximum amount of fat and get leaner. The concept of consistently maximizing muscle protein synthesis through small more frequent meals, consisting of protein, every 2-3 hours makes perfect sense for someone trying to burn fat, build muscle, and/or improve performance.
*This post was written by Will Grumke. He is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer, NASM Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist, NASM Certified Weight Loss Specialist, NASM Certified Behavioral Change Specialist, and CrossFit Level 1 Trainer.
- Fabry, P., et al., The Frequency of Meals. Its Relation to Overweight, Hypercholesterolaemia, and Decreased Glucose-Tolerance. Lancet, 1964. 2(7360): p. 614-5.
- Bellisle, F., R. McDevitt, and A.M. Prentice, Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr, 1997. 77 Suppl 1: p. S57-70.
- Cameron, J.D., M.J. Cyr, and E. Doucet, Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. Br J Nutr, 2010. 103(8): p. 1098-101.
- Farshchi, H.R., M.A. Taylor, and I.A. Macdonald, Beneficial metabolic effects of regular meal frequency on dietary thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity, and fasting lipid profiles in healthy obese women. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005. 81(1): p. 16-24.
- Tipton, K.D., et al., Postexercise net protein synthesis in human muscle from orally administered amino acids. Am J Physiol, 1999. 276(4 Pt 1): p. E628-34.
- Tang, J.E. and S.M. Phillips, Maximizing muscle protein anabolism: the role of protein quality. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2009. 12(1): p. 66-71.