“Do I really need to eat 6 meals per day if I want to lose weight?”
The short answer is “no” … you don’t. In fact, a few studies have been published in the last few years investigating this exact question. As with so many topics, proper context is needed. For example, the research fairly clearly shows that if caloric intake is controlled, meal frequency takes a back seat to total energy intake. Put another way, sure, meal frequency works for someone who has no idea how many calories they are consuming each day and when deciding to focus on eating smaller, more frequent meals they instigate a reduction in their daily caloric intake. In this instance, the weight loss that may come from it has little to do with meal frequency and more to do with total caloric intake.
Another way to look at this is in reverse. Say hypothetically you followed a regimented eating schedule that consisted of five smaller meals each day and one of these meals was a hefty bowl of ice cream with a cookie or some peanut butter. Most importantly, with this schedule you were largely in caloric balance meaning the amount of calories your body burned each day was very similar to how many calories you consumed in your diet…i.e., you were weight stable. Now here comes the unthinkable part … you stop eating that incredible bowl of ice cream that is 600-700 calories after it is all said and done. What do you think will happen? You will lose weight over time, but yet your meal frequency went down! Again, total calories and whether or not you are in a caloric deficit reduction are the bigger issues here.
In summary, research by Cameron in 2010 published one of the first controlled scientific approaches where they had one group eat six smaller more frequent meals and another group consume the same amount of calories in two meals. Changes in weight loss and body composition were monitored and no differences between the groups were realized. These results were replicated by some of our work while I was at the University of New Mexico. Finally and as with other discussions, the impact of meal frequency on other attributes besides weight loss deserves a small mention. The scientific literature also indicates that a higher meal frequency may help to better manage glucose and insulin levels as well as cholesterol levels. Additionally, people consuming a higher meal frequency also commonly report having more energy and generally feeling better that eating larger, less frequent meals. Thus, if weight loss is your primary goal, meal frequency is not as important as the total number of calories you are consuming, but more meals will afford some favorable health benefits and may allow you to feel more energy throughout the day.
-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.
Alencar, M. K., J. R. Beam, J. J. McCormick, A. C. White, R. M. Salgado, L. R. Kravitz, C. M. Mermier, A. L. Gibson, C. A. Conn, D. Kolkmeyer, R. T. Ferraro, and C. M. Kerksick. 2015. “Increased meal frequency attenuates fat-free mass losses and some markers of health status with a portion-controlled weight loss diet.” Nutr Res 35 (5):375-83. doi: 10.1016/j.nutres.2015.03.003.
Cameron, J. D., M. J. Cyr, and E. Doucet. 2010. “Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet.” The British journal of nutrition 103 (8):1098-101. doi: 10.1017/S0007114509992984.