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Eating More Frequently Does NOT Stoke Your Metbolism

Posted Aug 30 2013 12:17pm
I was wrong.  For years I've been telling weight loss clients they need to eat about every 3 hours to increase their metabolic rate.  "Eat 6 small meals a day. It'll stoke your metabolism and help you burn more calories while resting" said my younger more naive self. Truth is the more times you sit down to eat the more opportunities you have to stuff yourself silly or eat the wrong thing.  If you're anything like me, eating also wakes up the rapacious monster in your stomach.  Some people have the willpower to remain within their limits, do you? Eating 5 to 6 small meals per day is still the predominate dogma among many physical trainers and nutritionists even though the peer reviewed research is spurious at best.  There is no strong data proving that eating 6 small meals a day is superior to 3 regular meals. Most of the original research extolling the benefits of eating more frequently relied on unverifiable self-reported data. The dietary phenomenon of under-reporting caloric intake is known all to well in the scientific community (the average study participant will under-report daily food intake by about 20%. For overweight and obese subjects, the margin can be as high as 50%  - Bellisle 2004 ). Most human nutritional studies are seriously flawed .  They are based on observational data making it nearly impossible to draw a direct causation between factors. This is why there are so many contradictory studies. There are too many lifestyle, hereditary and personal factors to take into account for an accurate causal resultant.  It is really up to you to figure out what works best.  Explore different ways of eating, try intermittent fasting or some other eating pattern and gauge how you feel.  The majority of the evidence from unbiased peer reviewed research is either contradictory or unclear at best. What is very clear is this: the supplement and snack companies have a lot to gain by getting us to eat more frequently.

Factoid: It is true that eating 6 small meals will lead to less fat storage but you will burn more fat by eating 3 meals a day.  It turns out to be a wash. Whether you store or burn extra fat is largely a direct response to how much food you eat and how many calories you expend.  Meal frequency has little to do with your overall basal metabolic rate.   

But wait, what about the thermic effect of food (TEF)?  This is the bodily process of utilizing calories  to eat and digest food. Every time you dine or snack your metabolic rate goes up a little.  This can be as much as a 10% increase in your basal metabolic rate ! Not too shabby.  However your TEF is a direct response to the total amount of food you eat and its macro-nutrient content; the frequency of meals has little if any bearing.  A sure way to increase your TEF is by simply eating more food.  Not a good idea if weight loss is your goal. The extra calories consumed will clearly outweigh the small increase in your metabolic rate. The major difference between eating 6 or 3 small meals a day is the intensity of the thermic spikes.  Six small meals will result in 6 small spikes whereas 3 big meals will give you 3 big spikes. If the calories and macro-nutrients are the same the TEF will be too.  I can't believe I have to say this but the act of eating and digesting food is not a good way to lose weight.  Furthermore, thermic effect of food is actually  reduced in obese, insulin-resistant patients . There is no better method to elevate your basal metabolic rate than exercise.

Side Note: Increasing meal frequency appears to help decrease hunger (in some) and improve appetite control in a few populations.  However, if you are anything like me, eating food increases my hunger.  If you’re used to consuming a meal every 3 hours or so, your body begins to rely on exogenous glucose sources for energy as opposed to the glucose that your body stores as fat. Switching to a 3 meal a day plan may help you control your cravings (less insulin spikes) and help you burn more fat! There are, however a few groups of people who may benefit from eating several extra meals per day
  1. Individuals who have a hard time putting on weight. It is easier to consume more calories if you are eating more frequently throughout the day. 
  2. People who participate in sports very high energy expenditures: Tri-athletes; heavy weight fighters, marathoners etc. If you need to take in 5000 calories or more  to maintain your lean muscle and body weight it may be easier to do over the course of 6 meals as opposed to 3. 
Do you need to eat every 3 hours?  Ask yourself next time you feel hungry, "Am I really hungry or is it something else (boredom, habit, low energy, stress, sadness, etc...)"  If you ate in the last 3 or 4 hours chances are your body doesn't need food. Play a game and wait 20 minutes before you decide to satisfy your hunger . It may just go away. Better yet if you want to increase your metabolic rate, exercise!

  1. Obesity: Effects of Increased Meal Frequency on Fat & Perceived Hunger "We conclude that increasing meal frequency from three to six per day has no significant effect on 24-hr fat oxidation, but may increase hunger and the desire to eat." 
  2. This study shows there was no difference in weight loss between subjects with high/low meal frequencies. "We conclude that increasing MF (meal frequency)  does not promote greater body weight loss..." 
  3.  Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: Position Statement "Increasing meal frequency does not appear to favorably change body composition in sedentary populations; Increased meal frequency does not appear to significantly enhance diet induced thermogenesis, total energy expenditure or resting metabolic rate." 
  4.   Evidence supports that meal frequency has nothing to do with energy in the subjects. "...there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency." 
  5. Shows no difference in energy in the subjects compared to 2 meals per day to 6 meals per day. "...meal frequency and a period of fasting have no major impact on energy intake or expenditure..." 
  6. University Of Washington: Eating Frequency & Appetite "Findings suggest that when the energy and macronutrient content of the diet is equal, the consumption of smaller, more frequent meals may not positively impact inflammatory profiles or aid in appetite control. 
  7. Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the lower range of meal frequency. "Eating three meals compared with two meals had no effects on 24 h energy expenditure, diet-induced thermogenesis, activity-induced energy expenditure and sleeping metabolic rate." 
  8.   Meta analysis showed "Advantage of nibbling meal patterns failed to reveal significant benefits in respect of energy expenditure." 
  9. Highlighting the positive impact of increasing feeding frequency on metabolism and weight management. - Proposes a higher eating frequency. 
  10. Frequent eating was not found to be related to adiposity (fat) in premenopausal women, but it was associated with increased body fat in postmenopausal women. 
  11. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Influence of Feeding Frequency "When the daily energy intake is consumed in a small number of large meals, there is an increased chance to become overweight, possibly by an elevated lipogenesis (fat synthesis and accumulation) or storage of energy after the meal."
  12. The American Diabetes Association: From Nutrients to Meals  found that people with type 2 diabetes who ate two large meals a day lost more weight than when they consumed six smaller meals with the same amount of calories.
Doug Joachim - NYC
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