Spend any amount of time conversing over diet ideas with others in the fitness community and eventually the topic of meal frequency will arise. The dudes with the cut off T-shirts that bare nearly their entire torso will probably be the first to tell you that you need to eat several small meals spaced evenly throughout the day. The idea behind this method is that you keep your metabolism continuously burning and you’ll slowly lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. Some researchers have also echoed this theory (17) but does this philosophy stand up to science?
Other researchers have shared this hypothesis over the years and one of the main theories behind this thought was that more frequent eating would lead to better appetite control and fewer calories consumed in subsequent meals throughout the day (23,24,25). Unfortunately, we actually have found that consuming more frequent meals leads to greater hunger and more overall desire to eat (19,20). Another train of thought was that increasing meal frequency might increase the amount of calories you burn in a day due to the thermic effect of food (15,16) – the thermic effect of food is simply the fact that it requires energy to digest and absorb food. Unfortunately, this theory has also been proven incorrect by science as several studies have found no difference in resting metabolism in subjects consuming different amounts of meals throughout the day (14,20,28).
This will be a pretty short piece because, frankly, this theory does not stand up to science. Dr. Brad Schoenfeld and Dr. Alan Aragon performed a meta-analysis on this very concept and found some interesting results. Only one study found a significant difference in body composition effects when comparing meal frequencies (2) and that specific study fed significantly higher levels of protein to the group eating with more frequency. We know that protein is, by far, the most thermogenic and satiating nutrient (9) so not equating protein between groups makes this a poor correlation study when examining the effect of meal frequency. No other study found a significant difference in body composition changes when examining differences in meal frequency (22).
This effect, or lack thereof, has been seen in both lean individuals (7,11,26,27,29) and obese populations (4,5,6,8,21) alike. One study found no difference in trained boxers (12) so even athletes may not garner a significant benefit from increasing meal frequency.
There is one caveat to the meal frequency conundrum, however. If you’re interesting in maximizing muscle growth, which I’m assuming most of our readers are, you may still want to eat more frequently throughout the day. Studies have found that increasing meal frequency, especially the frequency of protein intake, helps better maintain a positive protein balance (3,13,18,22) which is incredibly important for growth. The key here is to consume about 20-40 grams of protein every 3-hours to maintain high levels of protein synthesis and remain in a positive protein balance as much as possible (1,13,22).
The effect on protein balance has been shown in some studies that found that individuals who consumed diets in a caloric deficit were better able to maintain muscle mass when they increased protein intake frequency (22). So a major takeaway for bodybuilders is that if you’re undergoing a cutting phase, increasing meal frequency can definitely help maintain muscle mass – especially if you focus your meals on protein intake.
Overall, meal frequency has little effect on body composition and should not be the swan song of every gym bro when it comes to “increasing metabolism,” or, whatever. The best diet for you is the one that you can adhere to (10). If you find that you eat cleaner and feel better when eating more often throughout the day, then more power to you. Whatever helps you achieve your goals is going to best for you. Diets can be extremely individualized since people’s taste and preferences are so incredibly subjective – there will never be a, “one size fits all diet” and that’s perfectly okay. Stick to what you like, and when you’re conversationally approached by bro tank-wearing gym rats, turn your headphones up and hit the weights harder.
- Aragon, A. A., et. al. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: diets and body composition. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), 16.
- Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Gentile, C. L., Nindl, B. C., Brestoff, J. R., & Ruby, M. (2013). Increased protein intake and meal frequency reduces abdominal fat during energy balance and energy deficit. Obesity, 21(7), 1357-1366.
- Areta, J. L., et. al. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal of Physiology, 591(9), 2319-2331.
- Bachman, J. L., & Raynor, H. A. (2012). Effects of manipulating eating frequency during a behavioral weight loss intervention: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Obesity, 20(5), 985-992.
- Bortz, W. M., Wroldsen, A., Issekutz Jr, B., & Rodahl, K. (1966). Weight loss and frequency of feeding. New England Journal of Medicine, 274(7), 376-379.
- Cameron, J. D., Cyr, M. J., & Doucet, E. (2010). Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. British Journal of Nutrition, 103(8), 1098-1101.
- Finkelstein, B., & Fryer, B. A. (1971). Meal frequency and weight reduction of young women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 24(4), 465-468.
- Forslund, H. B., Klingström, S., Hagberg, H., Löndahl, M., Torgerson, J. S., & Lindroos, A. K. (2008). Should snacks be recommended in obesity treatment? A 1-year randomized clinical trial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 62(11), 1308.
- Hermsdorff, H. H., Volp, A. C., & Bressan, J. (2007). Macronutrient profile affects diet-induced thermogenesis and energy intake. Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutricion, 57(1), 33-42.
- Hutchison, A. T., & Heilbronn, L. K. (2016). Metabolic impacts of altering meal frequency and timing–does when we eat matter? Biochimie, 124, 187-197.
- Irwin, M. I., & Feeley, R. M. (1967). Frequency and size of meals and serum lipids, nitrogen and mineral retention, fat digestibility, and urinary thiamine and riboflavin in young women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 20, 816-824.
- Iwao, S., Mori, K., & Sato, Y. (1996). Effects of meal frequency on body composition during weight control in boxers. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 6(5), 265-272.
- Kerksick, C. M., et. al. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), 33.
- Kinabo, J. L., & Durnin, J. V. (1990). Effect of meal frequency on the thermic effect of food in women. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 44(5), 389-395.
- LeBlanc, J., & Diamond, P. (1986). Effect of meal size and frequency on postprandial thermogenesis in dogs. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 250(2), E144-E147.
- LeBlanc, J., Mercier, I., & Nadeau, A. (1993). Components of postprandial thermogenesis in relation to meal frequency in humans. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 71(12), 879-883.
- Louis-Sylvestre, J., Lluch, A., Neant, F., & Blundell, J. E. (2003). Highlighting the positive impact of increasing feeding frequency on metabolism and weight management. In Forum of Nutrition (Vol. 56, pp. 126-128).
- Moore, D. R., et. al. (2012). Daytime pattern of post-exercise protein intake affects whole-body protein turnover in resistance-trained males. Nutrition & Metabolism, 9(1), 91.
- Munsters, M. J., & Saris, W. H. (2012). Effects of meal frequency on metabolic profiles and substrate partitioning in lean healthy males. PloS One, 7(6), e38632.
- Ohkawara, K., Cornier, M. A., Kohrt, W. M., & Melanson, E. L. (2013). Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity, 21(2), 336-343.
- Poston, W. S. C., Haddock, C. K., Pinkston, M. M., Pace, P., Karakoc, N. D., Reeves, R. S., & Foreyt, J. P. (2005). Weight loss with meal replacement and meal replacement plus snacks: a randomized trial. International Journal of Obesity, 29(9), 1107.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A., & Krieger, J. W. (2015). Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews, 73(2), 69-82.
- Smeets, A. J., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S. (2008). Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the lower range of meal frequency. British Journal of Nutrition, 99(6), 1316-1321.
- Speechly, D. P., & Buffenstein, R. (1999). Greater appetite control associated with an increased frequency of eating in lean males. Appetite, 33(3), 285-297.
- Speechly, D. P., Rogers, G. G., & Buffenstein, R. (1999). Acute appetite reduction associated with an increased frequency of eating in obese males. International Journal of Obesity, 23(11), 1151.
- Stote, K. S., et. al. (2007). A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(4), 981-988.
- Swindells, Y. E., Holmes, S. A., & Robinson, M. F. (1968). The metabolic response of young women to changes in the frequency of meals. British Journal of Nutrition, 22(4), 667-680.
- Tai, M. M., Castillo, P., & Pi-Sunyer, F. X. (1991). Meal size and frequency: effect on the thermic effect of food. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 54(5), 783-787.
- Young, C. M., Scanlan, S. S., Topping, C. M., Simko, V., & Lutwak, L. (1971). Frequency of feeding, weight reduction, and body composition. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 59(5), 466-472.
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