Frequent Meals Myth - Small Meals 5 Times A Day To Lose Weight?




Have you ever heard that eating small, frequent meals throughout the day will help you lose weight? I bet you have. Increased meal frequency is supposed to offer various benefits to the average dieter. The most important alleged benefit is that eating many small meals will increase your metabolic rate. But, is this true? 


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Several epidemiological studies have actually linked increased meal frequency with lower obesity rates. The problem with this kind of studies is that they depend on the self-reported data of the participants themselves. To really determine whether high meal frequency is associated with lower weight, we need studies that use strict calorie control. Such studies do exist. A review of such studies was published in 2009 and involved 176 previous studies, where the participants ate from 1 to 9 times per day for a period of 2 to 8 weeks (for example here is one of the studies: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19943985). The interesting conclusion was that if there are accurate measurements of how much everyone eats, weight loss or maintenance remains independent of the frequency of meals and the only thing that actually matters is the total calories consumed.

But, how come everyone says that eating many, small meals will increase your metabolism and help you lose weight? Well, it’s simply a logical fallacy. Even though the notion that every time you eat you increase your metabolism is true, this doesn’t mean that the more times you eat the more calories you will burn. The problem is that the increase in metabolism is proportional to the calories contained in the meal. A small meal will cause a small metabolic boost and a large meal will cause a large metabolic boost. The only difference is that the person who eats eight smaller meals per day, will experience eight small increases in metabolism and the person who eats four larger meals per day, will experience four larger increases in metabolism. The end result will be exactly the same.

Have you ever wondered why eating a meal increases your metabolism? This happens due to the thermic effect of food. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the energy expended during the digestion, absorption, storage and utilization of the nutrients contained inside the food. TEF is estimated at roughly 10% of total energy intake. In other words, whether you eat one 800-calorie-meal every 6 hours or two 400-calorie-meals every 3 hours, the thermic effect of food will stay the same.

When it comes to weight control, it doesn’t matter how often you eat, but how many calories you consume. The first thing you need to do is to determine the amount of calories that can help you lose weight and then divide these calories into as many meals as you want. This means that if you want to consume many meals per day, these meals will have to very small, even tiny. As you can see snacking is optional for weight loss. 

However, if you feel that eating more frequently helps you control your hunger more effectively; then by all means keep on doing just that. But, if you hate eating tiny meals every 3 hours, then you will be happy to know that it actually makes no difference.