6 Meals A Day: Stoke The Metabolic Fire

If your goals are to be healthy, lose weight, or to build muscle, consuming 6 meals per day is the most optimal dietary approach.  Period.

Many fitness gurus, fitness experts, registered dietitians and even some medical doctors suggest the 6-meal-per-day diet.  If all these folks recommend such an approach, it must be the best and only way, right?  Many claim this boosts one’s metabolism and increases the burning of body fat.

In the fitness world, it’s fairly common for people to hold onto a belief or dogma without much thought as to why.  These beliefs are often slightly incorrect or just plain false.

Today I’d like to present you with some information, encourage you to look at it for yourself and then make your own decisions.  Make your own choices after you’ve looked at some research.

All this takes is the willingness to open your mind, think freely and consider other ideas and possibilities.  This is what I did over 2 years ago as I discuss in my article about meal frequency.

Conversations on the Internet

A few weeks ago, I checked my feed reader to find an interesting article on a website I hadn’t frequented in some time.  The article is aptly titled I Eat Very Little, Yet I Can’t Seem To Lose This Weight! As you read on, Erin, states in her first point that eating more frequently is the answer to someone’s weight loss woes.

Quote from the first point:

You eat less than three times per day. Eating less often does not help you win the weight-loss battle! Eating often is the key! Think of your body like a furnace; you have to feed it something in order to burn. Your metabolism starts to slow if you do not eat at least every three to five hours. Many people are afraid to eat more often if they are having difficulty losing weight; however, I promise that you are only making it harder on yourself if you eat infrequently.

I later chimed in here, sounding like a real jerk. I didn’t mean to come off that way, so I’ll let this serve as an apology to Erin.  My intention was never to insult her as I stated here.

She actually wrote a post on her blog about artificial sweeteners and some of the myths associated with them that I really liked.

Now, some might say I have no business arguing on the internet with a registered dietitian simply because I have no specialized degree in nutrition or health systems.

However, I am adamant about looking at arguments and ideas from all angles, looking at research as well as what’s happening in the real world to form my own ideas and make my stance.  In the past, before I began my education, I made decisions based solely on someone else’s word or unsubstantiated claims that were made in the locker room or in some magazine.

I’m proud to say that I’ve met many people who’ve encouraged and challenged me to look at research, be skeptical, and seek out the truth with due diligence.  I have Lyle, Alan, Jamie, Martin and Ryan to thank for prodding me along.

A Look at Some Research

Before I get into this, I must preface that this will be nothing like the AARR (not to be confused with the AARP).  If you’re into looking at research in a way that is easy to understand plus completely readable and enjoyable, check out Alan’s monthly research review.  You will not be disappointed.

In case some of you hadn’t noticed, the New York Times did a nice little write-up back in March about the big issue regarding meal frequency.

One thing I’ve learned when scouring the many pages of pubmed and medline, is one must take into account the date studies were published.  As technology improves, it only makes sense that studies are going to be more accurate and precise as time goes on.

The first study from the NYTimes article I want to look at discusses nibbling versus gorging.  According to the study, 7 men were fed metabolically identical diets except some were fed three meals while others were fed 17 snacks (hence the nibbling).  The experiment consisted of 2 weeks and thus proved the nibbling diet to be better in terms of reducing fasting serum concentrations of cholesterol[1].  This particular study was also conducted in 1989.

Another study from 1987 took 8 subjects and fed them 1 meal per day over a 2 week period and then did the same experiment with 5 meals per day.  Changes in body weight were statistically insignificant and the results demonstrated that meal frequency did not influence energy balance[2].

There was a study done in the British Journal of Nutrition in 1997 called meal frequency and energy balance.   According to the data, the study concluded that there is no evidence that meal frequency influences weight loss on a hypoenergetic diet[3].  If you want an in-depth look at this particular study, check out Lyle’s research review.

And finally, the most recent research paper I know of suggests that a frequency of 3 meals or 3 meals plus 3 snacks poses no difference in weight lost in 8 obese women and 8 obese women over an 8 week period on an equi-energetic, energy-restricted diet[4].

Conclusions

So here we have 3 studies, all in which were conducted periodically over a significant span of time (20+ years) all yielding similar results.   So what we do know, and I feel we can finally put to rest, is that meal frequency has no real bearing upon whether or not we get results when trying to lose weight.  Total calorie intake for the day is what truly matters.

Does eating frequently stoke the metabolic fire?  Does it in the sense that it speeds up one’s metabolism?  I think not.

As long as you’re hitting your macronutrient goals for the day, the frequency in which you get them into your body are minor details.

Intermittent Fasting and Safety

In the same article, a reader by the name of Lena made a few comments regarding her views/opinions about fasting.

Here’s a bit of the commentary:

Lena: There are plenty of dogmas out there about fasting too. Fasting isn’t something that should be encouraged to the general public. I would imagine that an average person with kids and a job would find it much more difficult to fast than to eat 6 times a day. Eating normally and healthfully is much more important than trying to trick our bodies by fasting.

When Beyonce loses 20 pounds on the Master Cleanse diet, fasting starts to sound sexy. I respect fasting for spiritual or religious reasons, but doing it for weight loss or detoxification is counterproductive. We cannot fully function when we are running on empty and our liver, kidneys, lungs, and skin do the job of getting rid of toxins.

Now first of all, there’s clearly some misunderstanding about fasting when looking at her reply.  First of all, I am somewhat in agreement with her when she said we shouldn’t encourage it to the general public.  The reason I agree in part is because we’re all so accustomed to eating 2-3 meals per day.

I don’t particularly believe it would go over too well if we just started telling people to only eat every other day or to eat all their meals in a 4-8 hour window every day.  At first, this would seem absurd because fasting just isn’t presented to or talked about much with the general public.  Now, I think it could be suggested to the general public if we first educate them and explain how it could potentially help them develop some better dietary habits.  Who wants to help me get booked on the Oprah Show?

It’s evident in her remarks about tricking our bodies by fasting that she is merely uninformed about intermittent fasting, just like the rest of the general population.

One research paper I want to bring up is a study done on Islamic athletes who participate in the religious fasting rituals during the month-long diurnal Ramadan fasts.   In short, for those unfamiliar with this religious practice, Muslims will not eat any food from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan.  All their consumption has to take place after the sun sets and before it rises.

According to the abstract, as long as the athletes are practicing sensible eating and sleeping patterns, any negative consequences affecting their performance, competitiveness and high intensity activities are hardly an issue.

You must also keep in mind that these are competitive athletes, not your typical American with a desk job who works out every now and then.  If they can handle fasting without ill-effect, I’m sure we’re more than capable of going  a little longer than we’re used to without food.

Finally, I’d like to point out where Skyler Tanner and Michael Miller swoop in like Batman and Robin to add their two cents.  Skyler points out some interesting studies in which intermittent fasting can help improve biomarkers as well as help one to lose fat relatively struggle-free.

Simple Benefits from Fasting

One more point I’d like to mention is how convenient lowering your meal frequency from 6-8 meals to 2-4 meals per day can be.  As Michael pointed out here, fasting helped free him from the bonds of the meal-preparing, Tupperware-toting slavery he once knew.  He also did a good job of explaining intermittent fasting in a no-nonsense, easy to understand fashion for all those who land on John’s page in search of the Beyonce-lose-20-pounds-master-cleanse-diet.

If you’re new here and have not read my meal frequency article, I’d encourage you to do so.  It just might change your ideas about fasting and it could possibly change your view on a lot of this diet and body composition-related dogma we’re so accustomed to.

My encouragement to you regarding your pursuit for truth is to always keep an open mind, do your own research and don’t just take someone’s word for the final answer, even if they’re the president of biomolecular studies of flea-infested field mice.  Science is always changing and new discoveries are always being made.  There will be more studies on meal frequency and it’s likely they’ll discover something we’ve never thought of before.  Respect the fact that there are no absolutes.

Dig around, challenge others ideas and learn through the process.  This is how I completely changed my dietary habits, revamped my approach to diet and re-established a healthy relationship with food.

Always question everything.

So what about you?  How do you feel or go about the meal frequency issue?


[1] Jenkins, DJ, et al. “Nibbling versus Gorging: Metabolic Advantages of Increased Meal Frequency.” N Engl J Med. 1989 Oct 5;321(14):929-34.

[2] Wolfram, G., M. Kirchgessner, HL Müller, and S. Hollomey. “Thermogenesis in Humans after Varying Meal Time Frequency.” Ann Nutr Metab. 1987;31(2):88-97.

[3] Bellislea, France, Regina McDevitta, and Andrew M. Prenticea. “Meal Frequency and Energy Balance.” British Journal of Nutrition (1997), 77:S57-S70 Cambridge University Press.

[4] Cameron, JC, MJ Cyr, and E. Doucet. “Meal Frequency and Energy Balance.” Br J Nutr. 2010 Apr;103(8):1098-101. Epub 2009 Nov 30.

Comments

  1. Bigjeff5 says

    It was published almost a year after this article, but you may be interested in the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s stand on meal frequency, found here: http://www.jissn.com/content/8/1/4

    Key points:

    – Research is woefully inadequate on this subject for both sedentary and athletic populations.
    – Increased meal frequency does not appear to have any effect on body composition in sedentary populations
    – Increased meal frequency has a positive effect on maintaining lean muscle mass for athletic populations on a hypoenergetic diet
    – Increased meal frequency does not appear to have an increased thermogenic affect in athletic populations
    – Increased meal frequency does appear to have a positive effect on bio-markers (cholesterol, insulin, etc.)
    – Increased meal frequency does appear to have a positive effect on appetite control

    The last two seem like really big deals for people who are significantly overweight. The rest of it seems to be saying that if you don’t have a food consumption problem and aren’t doing constant, intensive training, then meal frequency isn’t going to be much of a factor.

  2. Jacob says

    I understand that meal frequency does not affect the weight if you are fulfilling your calorie intake and nutrients. But does it affect your energy metabolism ? And if i start eating 3 meals a day opposed to 6 meals will it slow my metabolism or have any negative effects ?

    • says

      if it doesn’t affect your weight, how would it affect your energy metabolism? how is that not the same thing in this context?

  3. Michael Loyland says

    You are so right! When i started dieting,i was told by just about everyone that i wouldnt get anywhere without eating six meals a day.I ate three a day and lost 35 lbs.

  4. Jean Pauloi says

    I can see myself in you JC doing endless debates online and sounding like a complete jerk in the end. I once had a disagreement with a nutritionist online particularly on the Eat this, not that page on facebook regarding HFCS. She keep on saying that HFCS is fattening regardless of calorie balance but failed to explain the reason why, anyway just like you I can’t stand bro science. I’m glad you posted this topic, I believe that there are still a lot of fitness folks out there who needs to shed the light :)

  5. says

    JC,

    Don’t you need at least a meal frequency of two, to get pre and post workout meals, which have been proved to be critical to performance and recovery ?

    For this reason I thought a 1 meal per day would never even be considered.

    • JC says

      I wouldn’t recommend one meal per day for many reasons but it does work for some. For instance I know of a guy who follows the warrior diet with lots of success.

  6. says

    JC,

    I agre with you 100%, however I believew it is pointless to try to persuade anyone. A book I’ve read read numerous times, Dale Carnegies’s “How To Win Friends…” talks about how it is useless to try and win an argument. You will either
    – not succeed in persuading the otehr side
    or
    – insult them and make an enemy for proving they are not on yourlevel

    Cheers,

    Y.

  7. says

    JC-

    You’re absolutely right – too many people believe there is “one way and one way only” to do certain things because “they said so”. There would be less frustration if people actually looked at the evidence available and tried things that were convenient for them.

    Good work, my friend! ; )

  8. says

    You really threw me off with that opening line. Good one!

    I like to focus on a weekly calorie deficit rather than daily. If I have a high calorie day on the weekend I don’t worry about it because I know I kept the calories low during the week (especially fasting days).

    Fitness mags sure have you believe that 6 meals is absolutely necessary. Don’t be fooled.

    Dan

    • JC says

      I, too, like to focus on the weekly deficit as opposed to a daily because it’s not always possible to hit a daily deficit.

  9. says

    There must be something wrong with me…Most days (80% of the time), I spread my eating out. But, if I am working on a big project, I tend to do better if I don’t break for food and keep working (I’ve been known to bring my lunch bag back without having touched any of it). I tried fasting on Sundays and found that I like it. Now, Sunday is fast day for me. So, what am I…high meal frequency / medium meal frequency / intermittent fasting freak or what?

  10. joe says

    Hi JC
    Great article…
    I dont know if you remember me…I wrote to you late last year concedrning gaining muscle. I’m 43 was at about 9% body aft at the time. Well I tried to gain muscle in the new year by eating more and training more heavy. It worked a little but obviously I put on some fat.
    But I am now in my cutting down phase, and I have to say that when I am in this phase I use the old tupperware technique, not that I believe this is the way it works but its the way I can control myself. I find this is the way I lose fat the quickest. I aim to be at around 6% body fat in about 6 weeks.
    I am also a great believer in Intermtant Fasting I use this once I reach my goal. I will be doing this in the summer so I will be able to eat all the great BBQ food and beer…There are times when I will fast all day and then have a really good meal in the evening.. It really is the way to go…
    I still think you have a great blog!!

    • JC says

      hey Joe. Sure I remember you. Putting on weight, depending on how fast it goes on, is always going to come with some type of fat gain – even if it’s minimal.

      and you’re example is the beauty of doing what works for you. If the tupperware thing is what keeps you on track, then this is probably what you need to stick with.

  11. says

    Hi JC,

    Solid post as always. I’ve never bought into the whole meal frequency thing, and keep my body guessing by eating as and when I feel the need to do so, and throwing some fasts in every now and again.
    If variety is good for our training then I think it is probably good for our nutrition/meal frequency too!

  12. says

    Great article JD, thanks for linking out to Erin’s guest post. I love to see well-researched points of view like you both offered up. I know for me it feels like eating more meals would be better for me, but more that it would just make it less likely I would cheat rather than it did anything metobolical.

    • JC says

      no problem, John. Thanks for your reasoning to choosing more meals. I find that others are similar in that it keeps them on their toes – whatever diet you can stick to is the diet that will work.

  13. Eric says

    Interesting article. I know that you have written about this issue in the past. It’s also good that some young voices like yours, are emerging to debate these issues.

    Really the main reason, I see, for dividing your meals into six daily meals is if you cant stomach large meals in the first place. Dividing it by six definitely helps with this issue.

    It is good to read things on your own bit it takes a lot of practice to read technical studies, something the general public
    Might not have the desire or need to do. Something I’ve done is to rely on certain voices in the fitness community, pretty much the people you mentioned in the article. I know that this can possibly lead to blind devotion to a guru, but I particularly pay close attention to any online debates they might have. If you remain objective enough when reading these debates one can learn plenty.

    Also, any apparent flip flop on an issue without explanation is probably a red flag this guru has sold his sole to the devil. There are plenty of other red flags, like sponsorship.

    • JC says

      so are you saying if I started placing ads for AnacondaTM on my site next week you’d jump ship on me? ;)

      • Eric says

        Well, JC I don’t think T-nation is going to come knocking on your door anytime soon :)

        But as an example, True Protein sponsorship is done tastefuly here. Same for Lyle’s site.

        • JC says

          haha, I don’t think they’ll be calling me any time soon, either. However, TrueProtein keeps sending me free protein, so…..

  14. Joe says

    I used to be a slave to tupperware and meal preparation. Your meal frequency article (or maybe it was ‘Desk Jobs & Dieting’) was the one that introduced me to your site and led me to take the plunge.

    My switch over to I.F. was seamless. It eliminated the stress and time i wasted thinking about food. In all honesty, it was probably one of the most productive steps i have ever taken during my persuit of fitness and looking good naked.

    I LET GO. I encourage everyone else to do the same.

    • JC says

      I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let… lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may.
      -Tyler Durden

  15. Lauren says

    I think for me, flexibility is the key. I personally feel better eating small amounts more often, because large meals just make me feel lethargic. I also find my blood sugar levels more stable with smaller, more frequent feedings — allowing me to function better and more consistently all day.

    But it is great to know that I don’t “HAVE” to eat so often, in order to stay lean, preserve muscle, not have my deltoids suddenly fall off after 4.66 hours without food…

    Most importantly, like Jimbo says — at the end of the day (ugh, what a cliché, but it fits here, calorically speaking!), it’s the total amount of food that I inhaled or savoured, as the case may have been, that really matters…not how many bites it took to get it down…

    Great article, once again, JC!

  16. Dieter says

    Good article JC.

    This serves as an excellent primer to those who seek to learn more about the benefits of intermittent fasting. I hope that those individuals that have had their ideas about meal frequency challenged, at least take a more in depth look at IF so they can come to understand that their muscles won’t starve if they go without eating.

    I’d suggest anyone wishing to learn or apply these methods check out Martin Berkhan’s blog post,The Leangains Guide, which is an overview of his leangains system, (daily 16 hour fasts with 8 hour feeding windows) as well as Brad Pilon’s ebook Eat Stop Eat (24 hour fasts 1-2 times per week.) These approaches are targeted at different audiences (fitness enthusiasts vs the general population) and as such vary in their structure. I’d recommend learning about both of them and choosing the one that works best for you.

    Best,
    Dieter