We’ve all heard the popular piece of dietary advice that eating six small meals throughout the day is the key to winning the battle of the bulge. It is believed that eating or snacking frequently (on healthy food, of course!) will keep your body from going into “starvation mode”, boost your metabolism, stave off hunger, reduce food cravings and help control blood sugar and energy levels. But here are the million dollar questions: Is there a magic number of meals that I should consume, each day, to help me shed those extra kilos? And if there is a magic number… is it six?
The theory behind the six meals per day concept is as follows: It is believed that by eating every 2 to 3 hours, an individual can prevent their body from going into “starvation mode”. Starvation mode is believed to be a state that the body goes into when it’s not getting enough food… Essentially, all the storing fat and energy saving mechanisms are turned on, your metabolism slows down, and you put weight on. Sounds reasonable, right? The truth is, however, that when it comes to weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight, how OFTEN (frequency) you eat is nowhere near as important as WHAT (macronutrients) and how MUCH (calories) you eat. Our bodies are quite capable of going more than a few hours before panicking and shifting gears into starvation mode.
What does the actual scientific evidence say?
There is some evidence from several observational studies which suggest a positive relationship between eating small, frequent meals to enhance fat loss and better weight maintenance. However, results from the gold-standard of rigorous scientific studies (randomised controlled trials) have been conflicting, to say the least. In fact, a study from the University of Ottawa found that there was no weight loss advantage to splitting calories among six meals, rather than three. Another study found that alternating from three daily meals to six did not provide a metabolic boost or fat loss. In fact, the researchers concluded that eating six small meals a day actually made participants want to eat more (uh oh). That’s fine if you are body building, and trying to fuel massive muscle growth, but not so good if you’re trying to reduce waist girth!
Another recent study noted that an individual’s resting metabolic rate (how fast the body burns calories per day when you are at rest, or your idling fat-burning engine) is unaffected by differences in meal timing.
As with all dietary and weight loss advice, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, or magic number, when it comes to how many meals are required per day for weight loss. Individuals vary in their need to snack, depending on their health goals (weight loss, muscle gain, weight maintenance), health status (for example, pregnant, chronically ill), exercise/physical activity levels, life-stage (growing adolescent boy vs sedentary 85 year old woman), and lifestyle. Think of a sedentary, overweight office worker compared to an active adolescent training for a triathlon. Clearly, these two have very different needs, when it comes to fueling their bodies.
Take home message
Eat according to your energy and lifestyle needs. I always encourage my clients to aim for three regular meals with a good source of lean protein (lean red meat, skinless chicken, fish, eggs, tofu) and veggies, or salad at each, and to snack only once to twice per day between meals (if they are hungry), or prior to moderate intensity or strenuous exercise.
While many nutrition experts are undecided about how many meals to consume, we all generally agree that when it comes to weight loss, irregular eating patterns and skipped meals can spell trouble for most of us. Consistency, pre-planning and mindful eating, is the key to success, rather than “grab what you can, and eat on the run”. Having a mid afternoon snack is generally advisable, as it helps prevent overindulging at night (goodbye ginormous dinner portions and late night munchies)! Remember to listen to your body!
- Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger WJ. 2015. Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews. 73 (2): 69-82
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- Parks EJ, McCrory MA. 2005. What to eat and how often? American Journal Clinical Nutrition. 81:3-4