Small Frequent Meals or One to Two Larger Meals? Which Is Really Better? Let’s Finally Put This Old Myth to Bed.
I’m always amazed by what fitness and nutrition myths get perpetuated even long after the science has proven them wrong. It would be nice if science journals had bigger PR budgets. It would be great if celebrities stopped talking about what they really don’t know about. And, it would be awesome if so many of us didn’t get our information from a splashy headline and a few paragraphs about a topic. But, that’s just not the world we live in.
Speaking of myths touted by celebrities, this one has been around since Nancy Reagan was the First Lady:
Eating 6 small meals a day (or eating every 3-4 hours) is better than less frequent meals. The theory is that frequent feeding as it’s called, keeps your metabolism up so you burn more calories throughout the day and your blood sugar levels steady, preventing you from having energy swings and hunger in between meals. Sounds believable and makes sense, right? Unfortunately science has proven this wrooooong. Unless you have hypoglycemia or Type 2 Diabetes, less is more. Actually a fairly recent study shows it’s not even necessary for Type 2 Diabetics. I’ll get to that in a moment. But let’s just say, the diet advice your grandmother used to give you is actually sage advice from the old country. “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen and dinner like a pauper.” And if the pauper actually skips dinner altogether, even better! This is the polar opposite of the traditional American diet.
So let’s de-bunk the scientifically unfounded frequent small meal plan.
1. Eating small, frequent meals does not increase your metabolism. Well, not any more than eating the same number of calories in 1 or 2 meals instead of 5 or 6. The factory in your body works hard to break down everything you eat. (If it can’t break it down, well, you see it come out – eeew, sorry). Some foods require more energy to break down, protein being the most demanding, then fat, then carbohydrates. The energy used to break down and digest food is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF). Protein can actually use up to 30% of its calories during this process btw! Point is, it doesn’t matter if you space out the meals or not.
2. Eating 5 or 6-small meals a day does not lead to greater weight loss and there is no significant difference between glucose, insulin, and lipid metabolism whether test subjects ate few or frequent meals with the same total calories.
Let me throw you one bone here: In the study where they lowered the calories for both groups, the frequent meal eaters appeared to preserve more fat free mass (meaning they lost less muscle during the trial – so there’s that).
3. You may be hungrier when you eat more frequently. Once you train your body to expect food every 2 – 3 hours, guess what? Your stomach starts grumbling sooner! Eventually this can lead to eating more and more and gaining, rather than losing weight.
4. Type 2 Diabetics may do better with less frequent, larger meals too. Back to what I was saying earlier…. according to a 2014 Czech study, it looks like eating less meals – the opposite of what has been universally recommended for type 2 diabetes – is better for them too. In the study the participants (average age of 59) were fed 6 meals a day for 12 weeks. Then they repeated the study with the same group feeding them only a large breakfast and lunch. All 24 weeks had the participants eating 500 calories less per day than they normally would. The researchers found that Insulin sensitivity improved under both regimes. The amount of fat in their livers decreased, but more so when they ate 2 meals a day. Oh, and by the way, the participants also lost more weight when eating just two meals per day, an average of 8.2 pounds, compared to just over 5 pounds with six meals per day.
5. Going to bed without your dinner is a good thing. Maybe your mom though she was punishing you with this, but it turns out, it was keeping your fit and healthy. New research has been coming out on circadian rhythms and our biological time clocks. Remember that old advice not to eat after 7 pm (I’ve heard everything from 6:30 to 8 pm)? Well, science is backing that up. Our metabolisms do slow down naturally in the evening and therefore the body isn’t burning calories at the same rate as earlier in the day. Unless you workout in the evening (which will rev your metabolism back up), try not to eat a late dinner and then go right to bed. If you are a late dinner eater because you go to the gym after work, keep it on the light side. Your metabolism doesn’t stop, it just slows down a bit.
I’m personally a big fan of Intermittent Fasting. There are a lot of ways to do it. From time restricted feeding to total fasting a few days a week. And contrary to what most people think, it does NOT slow your metabolism and put you in starvation mode so quickly. But guess what, eating a diet low in calories does!
I know, there’s so much information out there and so hard to keep track of what’s proven and what’s made up or what science has been disproven versus what still holds up. If you need help navigating these confusing waters, I am available for nutrition and fitness coaching.
Need to geek out? Here are those studies I referred to: