Meal Frequency: How Many Meals Per Day Should You Eat?

Taking your food with you?  Eating every 3 hours?  Are you sick of it?  I was…

Meal Frequency – The Dogma That Will Not Die…

Yes, I called the idea of eating 5-6 small meals per day dogma. I have not lost my mind and I am not ignorant, or uneducated. I am quite the opposite. I have spent many hours reading and learning about this common misconception we as fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders have been mislead to believe. We have come to believe that eating 5-6 small meals throughout the day is superior and optimal when pursuing that coveted physique. I used to subscribe to the notion that one could only process 30-35 grams of protein for each meal and any excess would just pass through your digestive system unused or “wasted.” This notion has been touted by many fitness pros as well as protein supplement companies for years.

My intention with this article is to challenge you to think outside of what you have always been told or led to believe about the multiple-meals-per-day dogma that is so popular within the fitness and bodybuilding community.

My Story – Dispelling the OCD Multiple Meals per Day Myth

During the summer of 2007, I was dieting for a photo shoot and of course, like any other person getting into photo shoot condition, I was counting every calorie, timing my meals perfectly, and eating small protein meals every 2-3 hours for a total of 6-7 meals per day. I made sure my carb choices were low on the glycemic index and that protein was the bulk of my food intake. I was very obsessive about eating every 3 hours, whilst making sure I avoided carbs after 7 pm in fear of “storing them as fat.” I totally bought into the entire philosophy of small frequent meals to keep my metabolism humming along. I was miserable, obsessive and anal when it came to food choices. Needless to say I didn’t have much of a social life that summer.

I did however get into pretty decent shape, had a successful shoot, and was proud of the photos. On the flip side, I was tired of being so obsessed with my views toward food that I often found myself absolutely bingeing when deciding to have a “free meal.” It felt like I was losing my grasp on what I believed I knew so well. I was tired of constantly depriving myself of filling meals, and always feeling remorse when I wanted to go out and enjoy pizza and wings with my friends or when I decided to go off my diet and enjoy some birthday cake. I had to make a change, otherwise I was sure to continue having this unhealthy relationship with food.

My Research Began

During that same summer of 2007 I found Lyle McDonald’s main forums and the journey to nutritional enlightenment began. I noticed one particular member was experimenting with Intermittent Fasting for fat loss and lean body mass retention. When I first read his posts I just knew he was some psycho nut job and his muscles were sure to fall off if he ever went any longer than 3 hours without protein. However, I was so sick and tired of being an OCD freak about meal timing, that I decided to keep an open mind. I was out to find a simple approach to enjoy the lifestyle of training and building my body without being a narcissistic social pariah.

I continued to lurk and post occasionally with questions. After many nights googling and reading about this concept of fasting with no adverse effects to my lean body mass, I was very intrigued. This particular member on the forums was experimenting with 16 hour fasts followed by an 8 hours window of feasting. He controlled calories just as he would on any other diet, ensuring that protein and EFA requirements were met. The only difference was that he was consuming large amounts of food 2-3 times within the 8 hour window, and then fasting from the time he went to sleep until mid afternoon the next day. For instance, say he was consuming 240 grams of protein per day. At 3 large meals that is 80 grams of protein per serving. I just knew that would be “suboptimal” at the very least, not to mention what other complications that might occur due to fasting. Keep in mind these “complications” I speak of are only what I had heard from some fitness folks that never looked at digestion from a scientific view point. They merely had been repeating what they were told without investigating for themselves. They just took someone else’s word as bond, and never thought to second guess it.

Martin Berkhan of LeanGains was the experimental poster who I was closely watching. His results after experimentation were nothing short of incredible. He seemed to retain his lean body mass during his diet that consisted of daily 16 hour fasts with ease. What did this mean? He was getting to enjoy large meals daily, even when dieting, and actually experiencing satiety. Satiety was very foreign to me, especially whilst dieting and eating 5-6 meals of 400 calories or less. I was curious, and bound to make this work for me.

How Did I Break My Pattern and Change My Thinking?

I had been conversing with Martin via email, and decided to give this fasting thing a shot. I remember the first day I ate a huge meal without any personal remorse or feelings of “cheating.” I had fasted all throughout the day. I remember grilling the fattest steak, baking a few potatoes, and preparing a fairly large bowl of corn for my first meal. I kept track of the calories and made sure I landed the macro nutrients perfectly. This was the first time in months that I had eaten a very large meal with no regret. I no longer felt “bad” for enjoying my food. I decided I wanted to see what long term effects this would have on my body composition and to dispel the eating carbs after 7 pm myth. I continued fasting intermittently for a few months on my own and eventually consulted with Martin. To my surprise I found that in the end, as long as protein and EFA requirements are met, the amount of calories are the only variable when trying to lose body fat.

I went from 6-8 meals a day to 2-3 meals a day depending on my training schedule. I found myself eating “unclean” food all the time with no adverse effects on my body composition. I was pleased to see that killing a box of cereal and eating 100 grams of protein before bed would not make me wake up fat and bloated. I did this over and over and over to find out that only calories matter, and meal frequency isn’t that big of a deal.

Fast Forward Until Now

Up until a few months ago I have been doing a modified version of Intermittent Fasting. I have been more lax on the eating window and some days I might only have a 13-14 hour fast as opposed to a 16 hour fast. I have used this method for dieting, bulking and maintenance with much success. I have come to the conclusion that the 6 meals a day dogma can die and I hope it dies for good. It only makes for obsessive, pedantic and stressed out fitness enthusiasts. The lifestyle should be enjoyable and I now enjoy my life in fitness again. I am no longer obsessed about meal timing. If I want to go out to dinner, I go and I enjoy it. I simply don’t worry about if it fits in with my diet for the day. Life is too short to worry about minutiae. Here I am one and a half years later, with no obsessiveness related to food. I simply eat when I want and make sure that my calories are in line with my current goals. I enjoy ice cream, cereal, pasta and many other foods deemed “unclean” by many. I make sure I keep an objective approach regarding my diet and training. So far it is serving me quite well.

Some Resolution

If you still are not convinced, I encourage you to research a little and try this experiment out for yourself. Throw all preconceptions about meal timing to the wind and go back to the 3 square meals a day for a while. See what happens. Lyle McDonald recently wrote an incredible article on this subject. Read it for your own good and apply it for peace of mind. Meal Frequency and Energy Balance: Research Review

Martin Berkhan and Brad Pilon are the go to guys regarding intermittent fasting.

(1/4/11) Update: I’ve since written my own piece on intermittent fasting.  Make sure you check it out.


November 11, 2008
75 Comments.

  • Kerrie February 07, 2013

    I love yr site! Thanku!! I have been obsessing about food for years and years.. Iately I have started properly exercising.. Due to injuries..and I have found that I really only eat once per day ..miss brekky..and then have a late lunch early dinner (I don’t work 9-5).. Or a snack and then dinner a About 8 pm..Baked/grilled fish with baked or steamed potato and lots of lovely salad with vinegar dressing..Sometimes afterwards I have a bowl of light icecream or a few squares of chocolate.. When I snack I eat snowpeas/celery or carrots..I am loving this way of eating.. It suits me.. Tried the 6 sml meals per day.. Got SO SICK of eating! And always preparing food.. I was feeling guilty bcos I was missing breakfast most important meal day etc etc.. But what u say in yr article makes so much sense.. No more guilt! I will eat when I am hungry.. Or if I have a social meal out.. Big deal.. I’m not going to kill myself exercising to ‘get rid of the fat’ I’m going to just resume my life as normal .. Full stop.
    Again Thanku for making so much sense (with yr clean eating article too) I am hanging up my food guilt for good! Lol! Freeeeeee at 42!!

  • James December 10, 2011

    As a 240lb athlete needing upwards of 4500 calories a day to maintain my weight, I, personally, have had the exact opposite experience from JC Deen when eating bigger meals less frequently.

    Besides the intolerable hunger pangs I experienced during the long intermissions between meals, there was also the terrible, energy-sapping, bloat that many “3-square mealers” know as “the two o’clock wall”.

    No matter where you look, it’s quite doubtful you’ll find a single peer-reviewed study that will support eating three meals of 1500 plus calories as a healthy and viable eating plan. The human body just isn’t designed to handle such a large quantity of food all at once and nobody who’s ever overeaten to excess can dispute the lethargic, groan-inducing bloat that follows such a large meal.

    The problem with this mentality, is that its followers are guilty of the same narrow-minded, dogmatic thinking that you’re accusing the clean, multiple meal eating crowd of. The fact is, a net deficit or surplus of calories IS the main determinant of weight loss or gain in the short term, but a well-balanced diet clean of sodium, trans fats, artificial additives, and preservatives with a focus on proper macro ratios, and rich in key antioxidants and micronutrients is key to long-term health.

    When it comes to meal frequency, 3 square may work for lower calorie dieters but definitely not for someone who needs to eat as much as myself.

    • JC Deen December 10, 2011

      hey James,

      I am in agreement with you as it pertains to those like yourself who have a very large expenditure. However, this article was written a few years ago, so my stance on the topic has broadened a bit.

      I also agree with you about the dogmatic mentality of the IFing crowd being no different than the multiple meals per day crowd. In the end, it doesn’t matter as long as calories and nutrients are there – there’s research that suggests this, especially when it comes to energy needs and body composition.

      Not sure where you come off saying this though…

      The human body just isn’t designed to handle such a large quantity of food all at once

      If this is the case, how come we are so good at storing fat (energy) then? From an evolutionary standpoint, food was scarce at times and when there was food, you ate. I highly doubt our ancestors stopped eating as soon as they felt full or lethargy set in because it could be days or weeks before another meal.

      thanks for your thoughts

      JC

      • James December 11, 2011

        JC,

        When I say that the human body is not meant to process that much food all at once I was considering optimal performance of our biological systems. Eating a huge meal cripples our mobility, and diverts energy from other systems towards digesting food. If it weren’t bad for us to eat enormous amounts of food, I doubt our bodies would react by making us feel like shit afterwards.

        Our ancestors were also very good at learning how to preserve food via salting, smoking, drying etc . . . when they had it in order to ensure they had something to eat later. Also, as hunter/gatherers constantly on the move, they often subscribed to smaller frequent meals because they couldn’t afford to be overfull and lethargic when the call to action came.

        Make sense?

        • JC Deen December 11, 2011

          not really. you’re telling me hunter/gatherers at smaller meals? where are you getting this info? I’m simply curious, as I don’t know if that’s ever been documented.

          • James December 11, 2011

            I minored in anthropology at the University of Toronto and in the words of my professor, Dr. Michael Lambek, “the evidence suggests that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were constant snackers rather than structured meal-eaters, by virtue of the necessity of their everyday activities and the direct impact it had on their survival.” He says that although much is uncertain when it comes to their exact habits, a lot can be reasonably guessed at based on the facts that we do know for certain ie.: the were constantly tracking migratory herds, they were quite adept at preserving meats and gathered vegetables and fruits etc . . .

  • Reka August 28, 2011

    The photo for this article is great! and intermittent fasting rocks, I’m very glad and grateful that I found it some months ago. Helped me a lot. Eating small frequent meals worked very well with me, and I got into great shape but recently this year, after consuming the 200-300 calorie small meals during the day and getting home after my workout I felt I could kill for a satisfying meal. Now, by fasting until lunch I can have the big satisfying meal after my workout, and still stay in my caloric schedule, I say God bless the people who finally made this concept up, and found their hard way against the dogmas.

  • Sue July 05, 2011

    I’m a 56yo woman and have always struggled to maintain a healthy weight. As soon as I start eating in the morning I want to eat all day and night. I love to eat a satisfying meal and find small portions impossible to do long term. In fact I can adjust to eating nothing easier than eating small amounts.

    Since menopause I’ve gained weight, so in desperation I’ve stopped eating during the day and I feel great for a change. I allow myself to have cups of carob or other healthy drinks, with a little soy milk, so I’m not starving all day. By about 4:30pm it’s time for dinner. I make sure it’s a large, healthy meal with lots of vegies, protein, legumes, carbs… or whatever I feel like, but not junk food. About 7pm I have a large healthy supper – a huge fruit/nut smoothie or a healthy type of cake.

    I’m not finding this at all difficult to maintain so far. I have plenty of energy and have got rid of my constant heartburn. My digestive system is no longer overloaded, I’m losing weight steadily and am no longer afraid to enjoy my food. I go to bed satisfied, so I’m sleeping better.

    My opinion is that each of us should get to know what works for our own body and stop worrying about the experts.

    • JC Deen July 05, 2011

      thanks a lot for letting us know about your experience.

  • Timmy C May 18, 2011

    I like eating six meals per day because I never get hungry, I never get cravings and I keep losing fat without losing much muscle. It’s all very gradual but consistent. It’s not a pain in the ass because I actually make only two meals and then split each one three ways. I have yet to try a meal replacement powder.

    • Jo-Anne November 27, 2012

      I do a similar thing……..I prepare two meals but eat them in three sittings when I have time or when I am hungry. Two does it for me…..two palms of protein, two handfuls of vegetables, two litres of water, divide a treat into two pieces and give the biggest piece to some one else or keep it for another day, move for a minimum of two hours a day, in bed two hours before midnight……I could go on but you get my drift…..

      • Jo-Anne November 27, 2012

        …and some days I just binge….without the side of guilt….

  • Priya April 17, 2011

    I went from size 10 to a size 6 by eating 2 meals a day. Transition occurred over 6 months. I used to eat first thing in the morning but I became inspired by something someone wrote online – something to the effect of “work out” prior to eating your first meal – It allows your body to burn off what you have eaten the day before. Obviously sleeping isn’t going to burn off everything, or whatever excess calories.

    It’s a good feeling to wait until I am actually hungry around 12 pm. I eat again around 5 or 6pm. I do not deprive myself during these meals – but I do make sure to include fruits, veggies, protein source, good fat source (since certain fats r required for the body to absorb fat soluble vitamins). Luckily, I am South Asian & the meals r veggie or lentils with spices & these provide the body with complex carbohydrates & plenty of fiber (keeps diabetes at bay!).

    You are definitely giving your digestive system a chance to recouperate & function optimally by eating the 2 meals. The only excercise I do is walk hour at a time 3 hours a week. My RMR is 1300 calories & I have never looked this good :) 1 other point about not depriving myself – Yes I always feel satisfied after a meal & allow myself some snacks (handful) & some type of Chocolate or sweets like Reese’s peanut butter cups or peanut M&M’s – & the fruits I include during meal are cantaloupe/strawberries/ or banana. These are super fruits loaded with more vitamins/minerals than other fruits. Lakewood Organic Pomegranate/Blueberry Juice is also a must have for its’ nutrients.

    I also stayed away from milk products – since cow products create extra mucus in the stomach & I read somewhere our bodies cannot digest certain proteins in cow milk. Love my almond milk :) & Coconut milk ice cream bars sold in all grocery stores. Coconut oil, ghee, olive oil are my preferred oils as well – research why they are good for your body despite the fact that the first 2 are saturates, they are actually great for your metabolism & other benefits.

  • Jn Hn April 15, 2011

    So this is all very interesting. I think there are some good things to point out in this in my opinion. This area of learning and knowledge is still growing very much. I have always had the personal preference of eating 5-6 small meals, but thats all it is, a preference. And once again personally, I am cautious of the idea of fasting then eating like that. But if at some point it is certified as safe, it could be an option for those who can’t eat 5-6 meals a day. It also totally depends on each individual, no one has the same body so they all act differently. It gives something to think about. Viable test should be done to directly determine whether there is a difference between your way and the 5-6 meals way, and that they are healthy choices.

  • Bonnie April 10, 2011

    A year and a half ago I decided to give up junk food and eat three well planned home cooked meals a day.
    I was 125 pounds, which IMO is overweight for a woamn who is 5’2″.
    This 63 YO woman anyway! :)
    I now weighh 105 and I feel great.
    I eat my last meal between 4 and 5 PM and don’t eat again til the next morning.
    I excersise an hour before I eat breakfast.

    I had no idea there was so much info about this online until recently.

    3 meals a day sure works well for me.

    • JC Deen April 10, 2011

      hey Bonnie,

      Thanks for chiming in. Good job on the weight loss!

  • Anna November 27, 2010

    Lucky that 5-6 small meals a day had never been my dogma. The only way I had and will continue is intermittent fasting. IF has kept me in shape, feel well and look well.

  • john k. November 20, 2010

    Good information. Hope I can be fit like that

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