If you’ve read a diet book, seen a nutritionist, or hired a personal trainer, you’ve probably been told that in order to lose weight or gain muscle you need to eat small, frequent meals.
The reasons range from explanations that suggest big meals harm your digestion or not eating frequently enough slows your metabolism. In most scenarios, it’s recommended that you have 2 to 3 small meals and 2 to 3 snacks, which means you’re eating every 2-3 hours for a total of 4 to 6 meals per day.
The problem? Research doesn’t back up all of the claims of grazing throughout the day.
Before you get frustrated, there’s plenty of information that can help you figure out how many meals are best for your body. It’s a mix of science, understanding your goals, and lifestyle preferences.
Once you consider all three variables, it becomes easy to decide if you want to eat big meals or small snacks (or both), or if you want to eat more frequently or just have 2 to 3 larger meals each day.
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The Science: Does Eating More Often Burn More Fat?
Every time you put food in your mouth, you burn calories. When you eat, your inner machinery (AKA metabolism) works to break down the food you eat.
This process, known as the thermic effect of food (or TEF) requires energy, explains why you burn some calories when you eat. It’s the main reason why people have suggested eating more often.
The premise is simple: if you burn calories when you eat, then eating more often should burn more calories.
But, almost every time researchers have compared more frequent meals and snacks to fewer meals, subjects don’t burn more fat.
The reason is pretty simple: it’s not how often you eat that influences your metabolism, it’s what you eat and how much.
Each type of food you eat (proteins, carbs, and fats) uses different amounts of energy. Protein is the most metabolically expensive—it needs more energy to break down, digest, and put to use than either carbohydrates or fat. In fact, up to 30 percent of the calories you eat from protein are burned during the digestion and processing of those foods.
That’s one of the main reasons why diets with protein are so great; the more protein you eat, the more calories you burn. Carbohydrates are less metabolically active (about 6 to 8 percent burned), and fats are the least metabolically active (about 3 to 5 percent burned).
Using that framework, it’s easier to understand how the number of calories you burn is directly proportional to caloric intake and the foods you eat. In other words, if you eat the same foods and balance calories, there’s no metabolic difference between eating three meals or six.
And it’s not just your metabolism. In a review of all meal frequency studies published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition, research suggests that meal frequency does not play a role in changing your body composition.
There are reasons why eating less frequently could be a better choice for your weight loss goals. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that eating more frequently is less beneficial for feeling full.
This isn’t a hard rule, but it does suggest that the act of eating could make you feel hungrier more often, which could mean you’ll take in more calories.
Does Eating More Often Build More Muscle?
There are two primary factors that will influence muscle building from a dietary perspective: total calories and protein.
Total calories are the most important factor in adding weight or building muscle. Just as you need to reduce energy to lose weight, you need to increase energy (calories to gain weight).
Recent research compared 3 meals per day with 6 meals per day during an 8-week weight gain plan. The scientists discovered that — as long as calories were equal — eating more frequent meals did not lead to more weight or muscle gain.
Even more interesting is that the difference in meals didn’t affect hunger, either. So, calories and total protein are still the North Star for muscle gain. But, there’s one reason you might want to increase how often you eat.
Research that looked at how much protein your body can use per meal for muscle building suggests that spreading out your meals might have a benefit. Specifically, the research found:
Based on the current evidence, we conclude that to maximize anabolism one should consume protein at a target intake of 0.4 g/kg/meal across a minimum of four meals in order to reach a minimum of 1.6 g/kg/day. Using the upper daily intake of 2.2 g/kg/day reported in the literature spread out over the same four meals would necessitate a maximum of 0.55 g/kg/meal.
Translation: if muscle building is your primary goal, and you don’t want to overthink how much protein you need, it’s might be easiest to have 4 meals per day, each with similar or equal amounts of protein to help you maximize your natural muscle-building ability.
That said, if you prefer to eat 3 meals per day instead of 4, as the other research has shown, you can still effectively add size.
Are There Health Benefits of Frequent Meals?
Much like weight loss and muscle gain, how many calories you eat and the composition of those calories (getting enough protein, carbs, and fats to support your needs) will have the biggest impact on your health.
But, some research suggests your meal frequency could influence other considerations such as your gut health and inflammation.
A review published in Nutrients suggests that eating less frequently could improve gut health and reduce inflammation. But, that research considered many other factors, such as having consistent eating patterns (eating around the same time and the same number of meals) and eating more calories earlier in the day.
So, while it’s hard to say at this point if fewer means better health, it does suggest that there could be some value with how you eat and sticking to a consistent routine, whether that’s more or fewer meals per day.
What Is The Best Meal Plan Approach?
The best approach to your diet is the one that is sustainable for you and fits your lifestyle. Given that most research shows equal benefits of eating more or less frequently, it’s better to consider lifestyle factors that will make it easier for you to follow healthy habits.
If you’re not someone who loves to cook, eating more often could be problematic because you might be more prone to eating packaged foods that contain more calories.
If eating large meals “opens the flood gates” and turns you into a bottomless pit, then small, frequent meals could limit the extreme hunger.
No matter what, just remember you can eat as many meals—or as few—as you want.
And, as we’ve discussed before, your habits will determine your success much more than any specific diet or meal plan.
Many diets work, and your body primarily functions and responds to how much you eat, what you eat, and the sources of food you select.
Bottom line: If eating more frequently works best for you and your schedule, then you should cater to your preferences. But, if you prefer fewer, larger meals, then you can confidently eat that way without worrying that it’s harming your metabolism or limiting your results.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and the author of You Can’t Screw This Up. He is the founder of Born Fitness, and the co-founder of Arnold’s Pump Club (with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Pen Name Consulting. An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was previously the Chief Nutrition Officer for Ladder, the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. According to The Huffington Post, Bornstein is “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, and E! News.