Question: Does it matter how many meals I eat? Does eating more make you lose more weight?
Answer: In terms of losing weight (and fat mass), your meal frequency does not matter. You’ve probably heard female bodybuilders claim that eating every three hours speeds up your metabolism, but this advice is not based on solid scientific literature. In fact, scientific literature has consistently shown few metabolic benefits to frequent eating.
The Evidence Against Meal Frequency
It’s understandable why most bodybuilders think meal frequency improves energy expenditure–nearly every fitness model and bodybuilding magazine on the planet emphasizes the importance of eating more to lose more. Unfortunately, there has never been any solid, credible evidence behind these claims. In fact, recent scientific literature proves the contrary–it doesn’t matter at all.
The evidence: Since 1991, at least a dozen studies have shown meal frequency has little to no impact on body composition or energy expenditure. According to a 1997 review reported in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers concluded that nibbling patterns–this is in reference to the meal frequency common in bodybuilders–revealed no significant differences in energy expenditure. They concluded that eating more was not beneficial in regards to body weight. Food intake, over the course of 24 hours, was ultimately more important.
A 2007 study reported by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition offered more damning evidence against frequent eating. The study, which tested the effects of three daily meals versus one daily meal, showed that the participants who ate three meals demonstrated no significant changes in body temperature, heart rate, or other variables related to energy expenditure. Interestingly enough, the participants who ate one meal were hungrier but lost more fat mass. This study ultimately did not support the claim that meal frequency is an effective way to lose fat mass or body weight.
Furthermore, studies that conclude meal frequency is beneficial have been deemed unreliable by top sports nutritionists. The mechanics of these studies are notoriously flawed or unrealistic; some of the tests were conducted on animals, which may be good news for your obese pet, but not for your average female bodybuilder.
Here is an example of such a study. One recent study concluded that meal frequency was more effective based on a diet of 1200 daily calories for athletes, which, if you are at all familiar with the caloric needs of the average athlete, is extremely low. For example, a thin female with little body fat may consume 1200 calories if she were in a coma–an athlete would easily eat double or even triple this amount. In conclusion, the study only illustrated the effects of meal frequency on starving athletes, which is not applicable to most of the female bodybuilding audience, as starvation diets are rarely used by bodybuilders. It may even have little relevance for normal, dieting women.
To learn more about these studies and why they’re not reliable, read this for a more detailed explanation.
Meal Frequency: Yes or No?
I think you already know my stance on this issue–to break it down, here is why I don’t think meal frequency is effective for shedding weight:
There have been few studies demonstrating the positive metabolic effects of frequent eating; the few studies available are flawed and not applicable to healthy, training females.
There are at least 11 (yes, 11) studies that show meal frequency is ineffective; most of them are listed here.
The people who support meal frequency often do not use scientific evidence to validate their claims; many of them claim they follow it because it was in a book, magazine, or was told to them by a fitness model or bodybuilder. While bodybuilders can certainly serve as excellent role models, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re correct about all fitness or diet issues.
From a scientific standpoint, clinical evidence consistently shows that meal frequency is not an effective way to lose fat mass or body weight. Instead, what matters is your total caloric count during a 24 hour period–essentially how many calories you eat every day. Keep in mind that this is only applicable to normal, healthy individuals, and people with certain health conditions may need to eat frequently for their health’s sake.
To sum it up: Worry about calories instead, not the number of meals you eat.