Your body doesn’t burn more calories if you eat more frequently. Your metabolism is dependent on how many calories you eat in a day, not how many times you eat. A diet of more meals or several smaller snacks does not improve your metabolism more than having fewer, bigger meals.
The idea sounds almost too obvious and it's why it went unchallenged for so long. For the past 30 years, many nutritionists suggested that if you want to lose weight, it’s best to avoid big, heavy meals.
Only one problem: science didn't support this idea, and it might have done more harm than good for millions of people trying to lose weight. It took decades before esteemed researchers in fat loss asked the simple question: are small meals more effective at helping you burn fat?
The reasons were numerous and seemingly practical. Big meals lead to extra calories and sluggish behaviors. Whereas small snacks avoided those downfalls, prevented your body from going into "starvation mode" (where you hold onto body fat), and provided a metabolism boost with each low-calorie meal.
The researchers reviewed all of the research on meal frequency and came to a surprising conclusion:
The number of meals you eat per day has no impact on fat loss.
In other words, you can eat however often you want whether that means enjoying many small meals spread throughout the day, or just a few more substantial meals. The most important aspect is the number of calories you consume, not how often you consume them.
To understand how this myth became so twisted -- and how you can take control of your diet -- here's a simple breakdown on how fat loss works, and the best way to structure an effective meal plan.
How Fat Loss (Really) Works
All calories are not equal because of something called the “thermic effect of food” (or TEF). TEF is the amount of energy it takes to digest, absorb, and store food. The rate varies from person-to-person and food-to-food.
TEF recognizes that your body metabolizes foods in different ways. Protein is the most metabolically active, burning anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of the calories you eat. It's why when you build your diet plan, whether you prefer low-carb, low-fat, or any plan, it's essential to prioritize protein first, and (if needed) supplement with additional protein, whether it's whey or plant-based. [Editor's note: In general, you want to aim for about 1 gram of protein per pound of goal body weight. So, if you want to weight 100 pounds, eat 100 grams of protein per day. Want to weight 180 pounds, eat 180 grams of protein per day.]
Moving down the chart of "metabolic activity, carbs come next, but it's a big dropoff. Carbs metabolize about 5 to 10 percent of the calories, followed by fat with up to 5 percent of the calories burned.
TEF helps explain why meal frequency isn’t that important for fat loss. Your body will gain (or lose) fat based on the total number of calories you consume. The caloric value of food determines that number (think of the calories you see on a label) minus the number of calories you burn via TEF. [Yes, there are other factors -- such as activity -- that affect calorie burn, but we’re just focusing on diet.]
So, if you’re told to eat 2,000 calories per day, it doesn’t matter if it’s separated into five 400-calorie meals or a few smaller feasts.
However, what's in those meals does matter. Remember, proteins, carbs and fats are all metabolized differently, so prioritize protein, and then fill in the gaps with fat and carbs depending on your preference and goals.
If you’re looking to build or maintain your muscle, research in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that the ideal amount of protein per meal is .55g/kg/meal.
What does that mean? Assuming you eat four meals per day (and rounding to whole numbers), you’re looking at the following numbers:
- For a 100-pound person: about 15 grams of protein per meal
- For a 125-pound person: about 20 grams of protein meal
- For a 150-pound person: about 25 grams of protein per meal
- For a 175-pound person: about 30 grams of protein per meal
- For a 200-pound person: about 35 grams of protein per meal
- For a 225-pound person: about 40 grams of protein per meal
Notice that the number of meals doesn’t matter. You just adjust how much (or little) you eat for your weight. So, instead of picking an arbitrary number of meals, it’s more important to figure out the type of plan that will help you achieve your goals.
How Many Meals Should You Eat?
Selecting the number of meals that are right for you is more about taking a look at behaviors that are more -- or less -- likely to cause overeating.
For example, if you find that small snacks routinely are not that small, then frequent meals are likely a bad option. Research suggests that the average size of your snacks have swelled from less than 300 calories to more than 500 calories per snack. And those additional calories can make a big difference. If you have two snacks per day, that’s 1,000 extra calories in a day -- or 7,000 calories in a week.
On the other hand, if having fewer meals per day means you gorge every time you eat, then smaller snacks might be the better option.
As you can see, either approach can work or be frustrating. Choosing the right number of meals for you ends up being more of an exercise of determining what habit fits your schedule rather than trying to “hack” your body’s biology.
Not sure how many meals you should eat each day? Try this 2-week test. It’s a trial-and-error approach that will help you compare the different methods.
For one week, eat three large meals per day. Then, the next week, try 4-6 smaller meals per day.
After each week, ask yourself:
- How easy is this to maintain? Is preparing the five meals/snacks per day a pain? Does it feel sustainable? If not, it’s likely not a good choice.
- How full did you feel on each plan? Were you satisfied? Which approach made you feel more likely to eat everything in your pantry?
For some people, it'll be easy to determine what works. For others, there will be benefits and detriments of both. Either way, know that both methods (big meals vs. small snacks) can be an effective weight loss strategy, so you can even switch between the two approaches when it makes the most sense for your schedule or personal preferences.