Eating used to be so simple when you were a kid ?
Hungry? Get an adult to make you something – maybe your favorite Mac and Cheese, ham sandwich, or bacon with eggs.
You didn’t need to worry about what or when to eat. All that mattered was feeling full and energized for the day ahead.
Then, traged- sorry, I mean, adulthood struck.
Now, to lose weight, you'll need to do something called ‘eat in a calorie deficit’? What more, researchers now suggest that you may even need to micromanage your meal timings? That’s not all.
The worst thing is that they can’t seem to agree on how often you should eat!
Some dieticians recommend eating every 2 hours (that's 6 to 8 meals in a day) for boosted metabolism. At the same time, others insist that you should eat 2 meals a day – without any snacks in between – to attain and maintain a healthy weight.
How conflicting. So, which approach yields the best weight loss results? Let’s explore.
Does eating more often burn more calories?
First things first. Let’s examine the claim that eating more boosts your metabolism: is this true? The support for this claim stems from something called the ‘thermic effect of food’.
Or, the phenomenon that the act of digesting food requires some work from your body – so eating does help you burn calories.
In turn, the argument goes like this: if eating 1 meal burns 50 calories (note: this is just a made-up number), then eating 6 meals a day would, logically speaking, help you burn 300 calories!
That's plenty. And at this point, chances are, you might already be on the verge of reaching for another meal. You know, to give your metabolism a boost. But wait. Aren't we all forgetting something?
What about all the calories you still end up putting in your body?
Here's the truth: the number of calories you burn through digesting food will always be fewer than what you're eating.
Whatever you burn through digestion is a percentage of the amount that you're eating (research suggests the figure to be 10%).
Whatever you burn is only a tiny percentage of the amount you eat
To put this into perspective, let’s compare 2 scenarios:
Scenario 1: You eat 6 meals a day, with each meal coming in at 500 calories. Your total calorie intake? 3,000 calories. And what about the number of calories burned through digestion? That would be 10% of this total, which is 300 calories.
Scenario 2: You eat 4 meals a day, with each meal also coming in at 500 calories. Your corresponding calorie intake? 2,000 calories. And the number of calories burned through digestion? It’d be 200 calories.
Now, compare the net calorie intake between the 2 scenarios.
Which scenario is most likely to allow you to lose weight? Yep. Scenario 2 (1,800 net calories compared to 2,700 calories).
In short, the takeaway is this: how often (i.e. how many meals) you eat a day doesn’t make as big of a difference than overall calories.
How often should you eat then?
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can simply stuff all your daily calorie intake requirements into a single meal – and call it a day.
Downing 2,000 calories in a single sitting, while not impossible, is unwise.
This begs the question: “How many meals should I eat in a day, then?”
Fantastic question. And you can find the answer to how often you should eat in a day in a recent 2020 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. In this study, researchers aimed to study the effect of meal frequency on changes in:
- Body composition (i.e. lean muscle and fat mass) and
… in athletes through a well-controlled dietary intervention.
The results? As much as a downer as this might seem, it appears that the optimal meal frequency comes in a range.
That is: researchers found that an individual consuming anywhere between 3 to 6 meals a day will experience the best body composition, strength, and hypertrophy results.
How many hours between meals is that? If you were to distribute these meals over the day appropriately, that would mean that you'd eat every 3 to 4 hours. Of course, there are other caveats to this 'optimal eating frequency'.
All this is assuming that you’re hitting your daily required protein intake – and that your protein consumption is sensibly distributed over the meals. In other words: you shouldn’t be stuffing your face with 150 grams of protein in a single meal, followed by 10 grams the next.
Your pattern of eating needs to be sustainable - for you
Admittedly, 3 to 6 meals a day is still quite a range. Unfortunately … this is as much guidance science will give us (for now).
How often you should eat is largely person-specific.
Maybe eating 3 meals a day keeps you satisfied. Maybe 6 meals a day makes it easier for you to stick to a calorie deficit.
You wouldn’t know unless you tried it out for yourself. And at the end of the day, you’ll have to be the one deciding if you’re eating 3 or 4 – or 5 – meals daily.
Just remember to stick to a few guidelines: watch your total calorie intake, prioritize your protein intake, and limit calorie-dense, processed foods. Once you get all these down, you should quickly arrive at a suitable meal frequency for yourself.
Time for the most important bit: don’t forget that nutrition is only one part of your weight loss journey.
Physical activity is the other.
And if you need help getting started – or simply staying on track – then GymStreak is what you're looking for. All you need to do is input your details (e.g. stats, fitness goals, and equipment available), and it'll tailor a workout routine for you. Which you can track on the AI-powered app itself. Simple. Easy. Fuss-free. Try it out today!
Pesta, D. H., & Samuel, V. T. (2014). A high-protein diet for reducing body fat: Mechanisms and possible caveats. Nutrition & Metabolism, 11. https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-11-53
Ravn, A.-M., Gregersen, N. T., Christensen, R., Rasmussen, L. G., Hels, O., Belza, A., Raben, A., Larsen, T. M., Toubro, S., & Astrup, A. (2013). Thermic effect of a meal and appetite in adults: An individual participant data meta-analysis of meal-test trials. Food & Nutrition Research, 57. https://doi.org/10.3402/fnr.v57i0.19676
Taguchi, M., Hara, A., Murata, H., Torii, S., & Sako, T. (2020). Increasing Meal Frequency in Isoenergetic Conditions Does Not Affect Body Composition Change and Appetite During Weight Gain in Japanese Athletes. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 31(2), 109–114. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2020-0139