Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “You have to eat five to seven small meals per day every two hours to burn body fat.”
That’s common knowledge we’ve lived with for the last 20 years or so; ever since, we had this explosion of mass media interest in fitness and nutrition. This lasting thought process was based on the fact that most people don’t eat enough and don’t eat quality foods; frequent meals are thought to control cravings and keep blood sugar stable. This is based on research highlighting the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). You’ve heard about it before – the TEF as well as your body weight, activity levels and genetics are the factors that determine how fast or slow your metabolic rate will be each day.
Since calories have to be burned when calories are ingested, the TEF is based on the processing and storage of the food you’ve just eaten. When you eat, your body has to ramp up your metabolism to process the food and this uses about 10 percent of your incoming calories.
Everyone relates carbohydrates to insulin and they are correct, but protein and fat cause insulin spikes as well.
What You May Not Know
Okay, so the above information is old hat; we get it. The problem, however, is that the research has been twisted and molded along the years and has become, more or less, an urban legend. You shouldn’t just accept the idea that multiple small meals per day are better than a few large meals for burning body fat. Let’s take a deeper look at TEF. For argument’s sake, let’s take a nice even number of 1800 calories per day. Is there any difference between eating six meals at 300 calories per meal and eating three meals at 600 calories? Certainly not, based on what food does to our body, since our TEF will be identical at the end of the day.
What about insulin control?
That’s an important hormone involved in fat loss. We’re so worried about minimizing the insulin spike and not letting our blood sugar fall during the day that three meals must be worse for us, right? Yes, eating six meals will equal smaller spikes throughout the day, but they also equal six spikes as opposed to just three spikes from the three meals a day group.
Recently, I was discussing the concept of meal frequency with a natural male fitness model and he kept telling me that missing meals is what makes people get fat because they have unstable insulin. For starters, there is no literature that shows that missing a meal or two or five over the course of a day does anything negative to metabolism. Our metabolic rate is way more complex than that and some of the recent fasting research shows that there may even be a five percent or so increase in metabolism by missing meals acutely. I’m talking about a meal or two over the course of a day, not over the course of a month – there’s a big difference.
Insulin isn’t that simple either. Everyone relates carbohydrates to insulin and they are correct, but protein and fat cause insulin spikes as well. Albeit, not as much as simple carbohydrates, but what those preaching insulin control don’t understand is your insulin response from meal three depends on meal two and meal one and meal four. It also depends on today’s activity, yesterday’s activity and is mediated by tomorrow’s activity. Insulin is a 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a week complex process.
How much fat you ultimately burn is determined more by your diet’s macronutrient composition.
“IT IS IN YOUR BEST INTEREST TO CONSUME A BRANCHED CHAIN AMINO ACID OR LEUCINE SUPPLEMENT BETWEEN MEALS TO INCREASE YOUR AMINO ACID LEVELS AND STAY ANABOLIC.”
It’s not so far-fetched to think that one could get shredded eating pizza. Sure, there are plenty of better options, but if whatever amount of pizza you eat actually fits into your allotted diet macronutrient amounts, you’re all set. You can split up your macros however you want, but the amount of fat you oxidize at the end of the day is going to be the same. You’ll store less fat eating six meals per day, but you’ll burn more eating three meals per day. The net effect will either be the same or will tip toward the less frequent group.4 As an added bonus, after a few days you’ll notice that your hunger pains have gone away. Why? If you’re used to consuming a meal every two hours or so, your body begins to rely on exogenous glucose sources for energy as opposed to the glucose that your body stores.
What about the major study that compared multiple meals to few meals? I’m referring to the famous boxer study5 that compared two meals versus six meals. As you can imagine, the six-meal group lost less muscle. So multiple meals are superior right? For starters, giving a group only two meals is ridiculous, there’s too much time between meals and it’s impossible to stay in an anabolic state in that case. Add the fact that the two-meal group was given shakes instead of whole foods and didn’t come close to meeting a high protein intake of 1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So you can see how those results are skewed.
What About Our Protein?
So what about our protein intake? We eat six small meals to keep a constant flood of amino acids into our body, right? Research has shown that with a protein rich meal, protein synthesis returned to its baseline level after three hours, but plasma amino acid levels were still elevated above baseline and the amino acid leucine was elevated almost three times the baseline level.6 This suggests that there might be a refractory (downgrading of maximum protein synthesis due to constant influxes of absolute amino acid concentrations) response to eating another high protein meal two to three hours later. It’s unlikely that another high protein meal would increase protein synthesis again because our amino acid levels are already elevated. Plasma amino acid levels appear to be more receptive to amino acid concentrations than absolute concentrations. So, it is in your best interest to consume a branched chain amino acid or leucine supplement between meals to increase your amino acid levels and stay anabolic.
The Last Word On Meal Frequency
Let’s make sense of everything we just talked about. Should you continue to eat every two to three hours and consume six meals a day, or should you space out your meals every three to five hours and ingest three to four meals a day? Now if you’re a 230 pound plus bodybuilder in the off-season, a hardcore athlete or someone who has a hard time putting on weight and needs anywhere from 4000 to 6000 calories a day, then it’s going to be easier for you to get those calories by eating six meals or so. If you’re someone who has a hard time controlling your cravings after a few days of spacing your meals, then you might want to stick with the six- meal approach, if it makes it easier for you to control your calories. If eating less frequently fits into your life easily and you can control your cravings that way, then a few larger meals would be better for you. Remember, when you lay your head down at night, it’s all a matter of the difference between how much you ate versus how much you used.
If eating less frequently fits into your life easily and you can control your cravings that way, then a few larger meals would be better for you.
By Jimmy Smith, M.S., CSCS
1. Westerterp KR et al. Influence of the feeding frequency on nutrient utilization in man: consequences for energy metabolism. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1991 Mar;45(3):161-9
2. Bellisle F et al. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70.
3. Denzer CM – The effect of resistance exercise on the thermic effect of food – International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism
4. Jones PJ et al. Meal frequency influences circulating hormone levels but not lipogenesis rates in humans. Metabolism. 1995 Feb;44(2):218-23.
5. Iwao S, Mori K, and Sato Y. Effects of meal frequency on body composition during weight control in boxers. Scandinavian journal of medicine and Science in Sports 1996
6. Norton LE, Layman DK, Garlick PJ, Brana DV, Anthony TG, Zhao L, Devkota S, and Walker DA. Translational controls of muscle protein synthesis are delayed and prolonged associated with ingestion of complete meal. FASEB J, 2007 21:694.6