Why the Number of Meals You Eat Per Day Doesn't Matter

Does eating more meals every day really make a difference? Adam Bornstein shares the truth about this common nutrition advice.

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Photo by Anjan Chatterjee/flickr.com

Nutritionists love to say, "diet is a four-letter word."

In reality, diet is a 10-letter word: misleading.

The biggest problem with maintaining a good diet is that nutrition experts have made it nearly impossible to know the difference between diet rules and diet suggestions.

For instance, "Trans fat is bad and will make you unhealthy" is a diet rule. That stuff is just nasty.

"Don't eat carbs at night" is a diet suggestion. It works for some people. But the science behind it? Well, it doesn't exist. In fact, there's more science suggesting night carbs can help you burn more fat and build more muscle.

Debunking myths and disseminating a smarter approach to training and nutrition is the basis for our new book, Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha. In it, we share how misinformation has done something even worse than make you fat or keep you off the playing field—it has created a hormonal environment that makes it nearly impossible for you to function at a higher level. Hormonal problems influence you everywhere, from the gym to the bedroom, from the playing field to your job.

Want to fix your hormones the natural way? The Alpha way? Here's where to start.

The Big Diet Problem

About a year ago, we decided to prove why diets are such a frustrating experience. I reached out to 20 guys to take part in an unofficial experiment: Which diet is best? We randomly assigned the men to groups so that we could "blindly" assess the results of our experiment. Once we had groups, we told the men to eat a certain number of meals per day: three, four, or six. Everyone ate the same number of calories; consumed the same amount of proteins, carbs, and fats; and followed the same workout program.

What did we find? The number of meals you eat per day has no influence on muscle gained or fat lost.

Although our little experiment would never qualify as purely scientific, it hit at an important point that confuses most guys: How many times a day do I need to eat? You see, many people believe they need to eat more often. But what if doing so actually slows you down and makes it harder for you to do anything other than overeat?

The reason why so many people hate dieting is that there's so much confusion about what they can and cannot eat. Calorie-restrictive plans like Weight Watchers don't agree with plans like the Atkins Diet, the first iteration of which allowed dieters to eat all they wanted as long as they kept carbs low. The confusion goes out the window with intermittent fasting, as it offers much more freedom to eat foods that you enjoy.

Despite the incredibly disparate nature of most diets, the one thing that has been consistently suggested in books published over the past twenty years is the frequency of meals.

If you've read a diet book, seen a nutritionist, or hired a personal trainer at any point during that time, you've probably been told that in order to lose weight, you need to eat five to six small meals per day.

This style of eating, commonly referred to as the frequent feeding model, is popular with everyone from dietitians to bodybuilders and has been repeated so often for so long that it's generally taken as fact.

But it's not.

The reputed benefits of eating frequent, small meals have never been scientifically validated, although studies have tried. The first and most commonly cited benefit  is that eating frequently "stokes the metabolic fire." Put less colloquially, the theory suggests that since eating increases your metabolic rate, the more often you eat, the higher your metabolic rate will be elevated.

That part is actually true, by the way. Every time you put food in your mouth, you burn calories. When you eat, your inner machinery works hard to break down the food. The breakdown and conversion of food into energy itself requires energy; and some energy is needed to help you walk, think, breathe, build muscle, lose fat, and even sleep.

Some.

And the rest? Well, the leftover energy is transported as adipose tissue—the bad stuff that gives you love handles—or broken down and passed through your digestive tract.

Going a bit further, we know that the amount of energy you burn depends on the food you eat. This is known as the thermic effect of food. Of all the foods you eat, protein is the most metabolically expensive—it costs more energy to break down, digest, and put to use than either carbohydrates or fat. Up to 30 percent of the calories you eat from protein are burned during their digestion and processing.

That's one of the main reasons why diets with protein are so great; the more protein you eat, the more calories you burn. Carbohydrates are less metabolically active (about 6 to 8 percent burned), and fats are the least metabolically active (about 4 percent burned), despite being highest in calories and great for your testosterone levels.

Now, here's where things got muddy for awhile: it was posited that if eating requires energy, then eating more frequently would require energy more frequently—and that a net effect would be to require more energy. That's how the multiple meals per day movement started. Makes sense from a logical perspective, but it's completely based on pseudoscience and assumptions.

Shockingly, no one questioned this for decades.

The reality is that your body doesn't care about how many meals you eat. Read that again and write it down, because it might be the biggest change that improves your new approach to food. You can choose how often you want to eat every day.

The thermic effect of food is directly proportional to caloric intake; and if caloric intake is the same at the end of the day, there will be no metabolic difference between eating six meals or three.

This fact was verified by Canadian researchers in a study entitled: "Increased Meal Frequency Does Not Cause Greater Weight Loss." We think they were trying to make the point clear. As long as the total calories are the same, you can eat ten meals or one meal and you'll still get the same metabolic effect.

Why This Changes the Game

The best approach to your diet is the one that is sustainable for you and fits your lifestyle. With regard to energy balance and thermic effect of food, you can eat as many meals—or as few—as you want. Your body functions primarily on the basis of how much you eat, the composition of what you eat, and the sources of food you select. Yes, there are strategies that you should follow—such as eating more carbs late at night. But whether you split those carbs into one big meal or three nightly snacks is your choice.

There are reasons why eating less frequently could be a better choice for you and your body. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that eating more frequently is less beneficial from the perspective of satiety, or feeling full. Which means that the more often you eat, the more likely you are to be hungry—leading to higher caloric intake and eventual weight gain. In other words, whether you realize it or not, when you eat more often, you're more likely to eat more food. When you eat less frequently, you can eat larger meals and feel more satisfied, and you're less likely to take in more calories.

This is the first rule of getting the body you want. And maintaining a better body weight is one of the simplest ways to reestablish a better hormonal environment. Start there—with a plan that you can sustain and will work for your life—and you'll create a better platform for success.

 

Article by Adam Bornstein and John Romaniello, authors of Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha. The book is now on sale at Amazon.com and at bookstores nationwide.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: PROTEIN | DIET | NUTRITION | CALORIES | MEALS | ENERGY | METABOLIC