Frequent Eating Myth Debunked
Apr 29th, 2013
Have you been spending half your life planning and preparing to eat every 3 hours because you believe frequent eating will enhance your fat loss by speeding up your metabolism and/or prevent your body from storing additional body fat?
Eating frequent meals can be an acceptable nutritional approach, but such a diet should never be followed for reasons of metabolic enhancement (I’ll dig deeper on the myth of frequent eating enhancing the metabolism in just a moment).
Where did the belief that frequent eating enhances fat loss come from?
Science confirms that when the body consumes food it must expend additional energy to digest the food that’s been ingested, thus superficially enhancing its metabolic rate. The additional energy output required for digestion will vary depending on the macronutrients that have been consumed.
Proteins require the most energy to digest, followed by carbohydrates and then fats. For every 100 protein calories you consume around 30 will be expended by your body through the process of breaking it down.
In contrast, 100 carbohydrate calories require approximately 8 calories to digest, with fat requiring about 4 calories per 100 to digest. This is one example of why it’s recommended to reduce carbs and increase protein when cutting fat is the goal.
In other words, since proteins require 20% more energy to digest than carbs, increasing your protein to carbs ratio will lead to a greater percentage of consumed calories being utilized for digestive purposes.
Of course, limiting your carbs will keep your insulin levels in check, which is also essential for losing fat and preventing further accumulations of adipose tissue on your body.
Frequent Eating is a Metabolic Non-Factor
While it is true that eating temporarily increases the metabolism, this metabolic increase is completely superficial and is related solely to digestive processes.
Furthermore, the metabolic enhancement is the same whether we space our food out over a number of smaller meals throughout the day or if we opt for eating 2 or 3 larger meals instead.
In other words, the digestive energy required for the breakdown of ingested macronutrients is mostly constant and is always proportional to the amount, and types of, macronutrients ingested.
In fact, an 8-week study performed by the University of Ottawa confirms what I’ve long believed to be the case: that meal frequency provides zero benefit in terms of enhancing fat loss. Here is a quick excerpt of their findings:
“There were no significant differences between the low and high meal frequency groups for adiposity (fat) indices, appetite measurements or gut peptides (peptide YY and ghrelin) either before or after the intervention.”
Make no mistake, there are strategies pertaining to the timing of macronutrient consumption, peri-workout nutrition and intermittent fasting that absolutely will have a considerable impact on your results. However, as this study confirms, meal frequency as an independent variable has little or no impact on your ability to lose body fat.
More Science to Debunk the Frequent Eating Myth
In another study, French researchers found that there is “no evidence of improved weight loss” by eating more frequently. And they even went a step farther to show that in terms of the number of calories you burn per day, it does not matter if you graze or gorge.
So if you’re goal is to eat 2,000 calories per day – assuming the nutritional composition of those calories is the same – it doesn’t matter if those calories are separated into five 400-calorie meals or two 1,000-calorie feasts.
But that’s not all. Canadian researchers decided to compare three meals per day to six meals per day, breaking the six into three main meals and three snacks (the routine that has been advocated by almost every diet book written in the last twenty years). The results?
There was no significant difference in weight loss, but the people who ate three meals per day were more satisfied and felt less hunger.1
If I had to guess, I would bet the eating six meals a day myth was started by a supplement company. After all, with the amount of time required to plan and/or prepare six meals per day this would make having a protein powder on-hand almost a requirement; if not for its nutritional benefit, certainly for the sake of convenience.
What About Entering Starvation Mode?
Another common argument that’s thrown around by proponents of frequent eating is that skipping meals will prohibit their ability to lose fat because their body will enter “starvation mode”, hoard its fat reserves and store additional body fat when the next meal is eaten.
I can remember making arguments such as this as a less educated, less experienced, aspiring nutritionist. So, if you’ve been guilty of this, I can certainly sympathize.
But, the notion that skipping a meal – or not eating for more than 3 or 4 hours – will hinder your fat loss is completely bogus!
According to studies, your metabolic rate is not negatively affected from complete fasting for 60-92 hours.2
In fact, there is ample evidence that short-term fasting actually leads to a net metabolic increase. For instance, this study concluded that short term fasting provided a mean metabolic increase of 3.6%.
It’s also important to note that this fasting-induced metabolic increase didn’t require the ingestion of additional calories. So, even this relatively small metabolic increase will do more for promoting fat loss than the digestion-induced metabolic enhancement provided by ingesting more calories.
By the way, if you’re concerned with building/retaining muscle mass, short term fasting won’t pose any problems for you. It takes a fasting period of 48 hours before the breakdown of muscle tissue begins to occur.
So you can rest assured that if you miss a meal – or don’t eat every 3 hours – your muscles aren’t going to wither away.
That being said, be sure to feed your muscles as soon as possible after breaking them down through training. Training induces a catabolic effect on your muscles that you will want to reverse as fast as possible.
Eating Should Fit Your Lifestyle, Not the Other Way Around
I have studied and experimented with a number of nutritional protocols. I’ve fed my body as frequently as seven times per day, fasted for 20 hours per day and tried just about every implement in between.
At the end of the day you need to find the nutritional implement that is most easily integrated into your lifestyle and eating habits.
Any diet that isn’t a lifestyle for you is going to end in failure, ultimately making meal frequency a moot point.
I’ve worked with a number of people who absolutely love eating 6 times a day and don’t mind the extra work and planning involved. This described me before having kids and starting a training business.
As life became more and more busy I found myself having less time for preparing food and eating. Frequent eating was no longer conducive to my lifestyle and I had to change things up.
I now fast for 16 hours every day (from 9pm until 1pm the next day, or thereabout) and eat large, satisfying meals every night, following Renegade Diet protocols.
Admittedly, I’m a stubborn person and it was difficult to break away from the dogma of frequent eating that I allowed to pervade my mind.
But my results have been better while following my new intermittent fasting lifestyle than when I was eating frequently. I am also now more productive, my body is less toxic and I get to enjoy a large, hearty, satisfying meal every single night.
So, if you’re too busy for frequent eating, don’t worry. You’re not doomed to some kind of fat hoarding purgatory.
Science confirms frequent eating to be nothing but a facade, a facade that is perpetuated by mainstream fitness outlets as the most effective means of losing weight and burning off unwanted body fat.
So, in case it isn’t perfectly clear, let me spell it out for you in no uncertain terms: Getting lean is not dependent on how many times you eat each day!
Yeah, I said it. You’ve been lied to long enough and you deserve to know the truth.
And the truth shall set you free!
1 Romaniello, John and Bornstein, Adam. Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha. United States of America: HarperCollins, 2013.
2 Ferruggia, Jason. The Renegade Diet. United States of America: 2011.