The 6 Meal Myth

The 6 Meal Myth
Photo by Chicago Tribune / April, 21 2011

You've probably heard this one before: Eating more frequent smaller meals stimulates the metabolism, keeping it running at a faster pace and thus burning more calories. False.

Eating more frequently may help control appetite (prevent overeating) or maintain blood sugar levels and thus sugar cravings (don't eat refined sugar), but as long as total calories are the same, your metabolism doesn’t really care when you eat.

The British Journal of Nutrition published a study in 2009 that proved men and women following a strict low-calorie diet for 8 weeks lost equal amounts of weight regardless of the number of meals consumed throughout the day. Subjects consumed the same number of calories, while half the group ate three meals and day, and the other six. There was no difference in fat loss between the groups, appetite control, or measurements of hormones that signal hunger. A similar study with the same results was published in the Journal in 1987.

If eating six times a day works better for you, great. I can barely prepare 3 meals a day - who has time for 6? In the end it doesn't make a difference.

For the rest of us that don't employ a personal chef, eating a lean diet is more important than meal frequency. An ideal diet should include a balance of 20% protein : 50% carbs : 30% fat (20:50:30). Maintaining a healthy nutrition balance should be the goal. Meal frequency and planning should be on whatever schedule works best for you to accommodate a healthy diet. However, keep in mind - if you don’t eat proper meals, you’re more likely to crave the addicting sugar-salt-fat formula perfected by the junk food industry.

Josha Krueger is a NSCA-CSCS certified personal trainer, an AFPA Sports Nutrition Consultant, and owner of Kru Strength + Fitness.

Filed under: Nutrition

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  • I'm not sure if I'd say that eating six small meals isn't important...

    I don't think many people understand what their metabolism (basal metabolic rate) actually is. Some believe that it is a speed at which your body processes calories and that you can speed it up (or slow it down) at will. This misunderstanding is the part that really needs to be clarified.

    It's actually very complicated to calculate, but it's easy to estimate. The more active you are, the more calories you require to keep your body - heart, brain, lungs, and limbs - going. The more muscle you have, the more calories you require. Getting fit will increase your metabolism - your daily caloric requirement. Essentially, you NEED more calories to burn to keep your body going.

    Your improved fitness doesn't "speed up" the rate at which your body burns calories - it increases its total caloric needs. If you eat the same amount as before and it's less than your body requires, your body will convert stored fat to energy for the difference and you will lose body fat and weight. If you eat the same amount as before and it's more than your body requires, you will continue to gain weight, although less of it will be stored as body fat.

    I agree that the timing of your food doesn't really matter as consumption is independent of activity level and muscle mass. It is irrelevant in altering the metabolic rate - only fitness can do that.

    Where the six small meals come into play, however, is in the management of blood sugar and fat storage.

    As you digest your food - at approximately 200-300 calories per hour - your liver breaks down proteins, fats, and sugars separately. Excess proteins and fats become glycogen that can be easily converted back to glucose for energy.

    Excess fructose becomes triglycerides that travel through your bloodstream and get stored as body fat and take an extra step to convert back to glucose for energy.

    When you eat a large quantity at one sitting, you're elevating blood sugar, generating an insulin response, and producing excess triglycerides. This continued stress to the liver can impede the insulin response, leading to Type 2 Diabetes. The transport of triglycerides can cause arterial inflammation and create plaque buildup which can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

    Eating six smaller meals can help an individual control dramatic changes in blood sugar / insulin levels and lower triglyceride production. This is a good thing!

  • In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    Hi Brent, great comment! I think we both agree the goal is NOT to overeat, so if you need to snack between meals to do so - then so be it. But if you can adjust your diet and break the sugar cycle and eat 3 balanced low-glycemic meals - the average person doesn't need to eat 6 times a day. It certainly has nothing to do with your metabolic rate - which is the general excuse I hear people use for excessive snacking. Check out my other post about metabolic rate!

  • I've been moved by my doctor into that purgatory of eliminating carbs in order to knock down triglycerides.

    So I'd curious if the 50% carbs guideline works if that 50% is good old fiber (lentils, beans, etc).

  • In reply to Andy Frye:

    Yes! Try to stick to "good carbs" which are typically found in whole, natural, unrefined foods. Vegetables, whole grains, beans, etc - are all full of fiber which will help you feel fuller and eat less, thus as Brent described in detail in his comment - lowering your excess triglycerides.

  • Good post. I was not aware of that.

  • Good article.

  • Just curious where you're pulling the 20:50:30 stat from. It would make sense to me that if, as Brent has said and you've agreed, frutose, which is a type of sugar and therefore carbs, is processed into triglycerides while excess fats and proteins are processed to glycogen which can be converted back to energy quickly, it would make sense to have more protein in your diet.

    Personally, I try to follow a balance closer to 40:30:30. Reduces the chances of overconsuming carbs, spiking my insulin response, having triglycerides that are stored as body fat, etc. It's the balance that is proposed in the Zone Diet (http://www.zonediet.com/).

    I will say that I agree with everything else put forth in this article and the comments. I just think that as a whole, Americans need to each less carbs (especially processed ones) and more lean protein (not hamburgers for every meal). That whole food pyramid that's now become a plate should be thrown out the window.

  • In reply to sapipa:

    Thanks for your comment Sapipa! It seems I may have underestimated the audience here.... Yes, personally I think the more protein the better - but I didn't want to get into that quite yet. The 20:50:30 is a more general "healthy" ratio that wasn't supposed to cause any alarm here. For my athlete clients or people looking to lose weight, we'll strive for closer to 30:40:30. As for the fructose, remember those 50% carbs include all of your "good carbs" (vegetables and fiber) too - not just sugars.

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    Josha Krueger

    Josha Krueger, NSCA CSCS, AFPA Sports Nutrition Consultant, is a former professional soccer player, two time W-league National Champion, UWM Hall of Fame member, and owner of Kru Strength + Fitness in Andersonville.

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