You may have heard the recommendation that a higher meal frequency or somewhere between 3 to 6 meals per day helps to maximise resting energy expenditure.
The suggestion is that you need to eat every couple of hours to keep the metabolic fires burning. It's been a pervasive and dubious suggestion in the fitness world for as long as I can remember.
Fortunately, there's no basis to the claim of greater meal frequencies enhancing metabolic efficiency.
Meal Frequency and Energy Expenditure
It's true that eating has an energy cost associated with digesting and absorbing the nutrients in food called the thermic effect of feeding (TEF).
And, while the effect is proportional to the size of the meal, research has consistently demonstrated that total energy expenditure is the same regardless of meal frequency.
Three Versus Six Meals Per Day
A more recent study examined the effects of 3 versus 6 meals per day on weight loss, body composition, and biochemical indices of overweight or obese women.
Interestingly, both groups saw significant reductions in body weight, body mass index, fat mass, fat mass percentage and waist circumference. Fat-free mass and body water remained largely unchanged.
The study showed that both groups achieved similar body composition changes and health improvements.
It was concluded that on an otherwise matched diet the number of meals you have does not influence fat loss.
The big takeaway that I want to leave you with is that meal frequency really has no bearing on diet success.
Ultimately, it's an area that allows for some flexibility and personal preference.
If you prefer to have smaller, more frequent feedings through the day, go for it. If you'd rather have three larger meals per day, that works too. Many roads lead to Rome and both approaches work. The approach that will work best in the end, is the one you'll be able to stay with.
- Does increasing meal frequency improve weight loss and some biochemical parameters in overweight/obese females? Yildiran and Mercanligil, 2019.
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