Meal Frequency Metabolism

If you’re one of the millions of Americans who have attempted to lose weight, you were likely advised to ditch the traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner regimen, and eat smaller, more frequent meals.

In theory, eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day will keep your metabolism humming and keep you out of ‘starvation mode.’

But the idea of eating more often to fire up you metabolism is only a common weight loss myth. In fact, how often you eat has little to do with the rate of your metabolism.

Metabolism and Eating Frequency

Whenever you eat food, your body burns calories in order to digest and absorb the nutrients. Eating six meals, compared with three, should therefore burn twice as many calories.

But it’s not that simple.

The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the energy you use to process and metabolize the nutrients from food. This increase in metabolism, however, is directly proportional to the type and amount of food you consume.

So while consuming six meals would increase your metabolism more often, the three larger meals would provide a proportionally larger increase. This means the same number of calories are burned at the end of the day.

A meta-analysis of four studies found no significant differences in metabolic rate based on meal size or frequency.

Even if eating more often significantly boosted metabolism, relying solely on TEF to lose weight isn’t helpful, as it accounts for approximately 10 percent of all calories burned.

Hunger and Eating Frequency

Creating a calorie deficit is required to lose weight. A deficit can be created by reducing the number of calories you consume each day.

Consequently, when you consume less calories than you need, your body responds by making you hungrier.

But feeling “hangry” all the time is not fun for you or anyone around you and may cause you to give up dieting completely.

Filling up on protein, consuming fiber-rich vegetables, and getting quality sleep each night are surefire ways to keep hunger pangs at bay, especially while dieting.

While consuming small, frequent meals is also thought to help, it may just do the opposite.

In one study, increasing meal frequency from three to six meals per day increased hunger and the desire to eat.

Another study found that lower frequency meals relative to higher frequency meals were more satiating and produced less hunger.

While there is research to support small, frequent meals for controlling hunger, these studies are often short in duration and only compare the effects of splitting a single meal into several small meals.

The Takeaway

The number of times you eat is irrelevant for weight loss.

Your metabolism does increase when you eat food, but the more food you eat, the longer it stays elevated.

When calories are controlled and meal frequency is varied, there is no significant difference in metabolic rate or fat loss.

For most people, three square meals is less arduous and more convenient compared to eating more frequently.

Still, meal frequency is a matter of preference and has no significant impact on metabolism. If you prefer three square meals a day, stick with that; if you prefer to graze, do that.


Gavin Van De Walle, MS
Gavin Van De Walle, MS

Gavin Van De Walle, M.S. is the president of Supra Nutrition and a consultant for dietary supplement formulations. He is formally trained in human nutrition and bioenergetics.

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