How many meals a day should you be eating to lose fat?
How many times have you heard something along the lines of “you need to 8-10 meals a day to really boost your metabolism”? probably quite a lot? Well hopefully, this article will dispel this myth. The reasoning for increasing meal frequency has several supposed benefits that all contribute fat loss, however, the scientific evidence does not support most of these proposed benefits and in fact often go against what the research says. Those who recommend high-frequency meals during a cutting phase will often mention several benefits to their style of dieting including:
- Increased metabolic rate from smaller meals
- Increased muscle protein synthesis
- Better appetite control
Increased metabolic rate: True or False?
False. Unfortunately, our bodies cannot be tricked this easily into giving up its precious store of energy (body fat). The idea that increased meal frequency came from the fact that eating food causes post-prandial thermogenesis to increase. Postprandial thermogenesis is the fancy term that describes the rise in core temperature that occurs following food intake. This rise in temperature is caused by an increase in metabolic rate, as it takes quite a lot of energy to digest food, especially protein. When this information became well-known it was thought that by eating lots of small meals you could effectively cause your body to burn lots of calories by increasing the frequency of postprandial thermogenesis. On paper this sounds plausible, however, research by Ohkawara et al (2013) showed that when they compared the amount of calories burnt in people eating either three or six meals a day there was no difference. Also measured in this study was fat oxidation (fat burning) and again, there was no difference between the groups who ate either three or six meals a day! These findings indicate that eating three or six meals a day does not alter overall energy expenditure and would therefore not make any difference in fat loss. Research from Dr Brad Schoenfeld (2015) has also shown the increasing meal frequency has no effect on fat loss or body composition when the amount of calories consumed is kept equal.
Muscle Protein Synthesis
Before discussing the impact of meal frequency of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), a little bit of background information is needed. Protein synthesis is a process that occurs in every single cell of our body, however, what we are interested in hypertrophy and therefore MPS. Much research has shown that the ingestion of leucine rich protein sources such as whey protein or branched chain amino acid supplements can cause the activation of a widely important cascade of reactions that ultimately result in the growth of muscle fibres. Several factors will determine the level of MPS such as Leucine, a branched chain amino acid has been shown to be a potent activator of a protein within our cells that is centrally important to MPS called mTOR. mTOR and therefore MPS activation occurs in response to protein ingestion even at low doses however this is sub-optimal for hypertrophy. Achieving maximal MPS activation is more desirable if hypertrophy is the goal. To achieve this, 4-6g of leucine should be ingested either alone, from a BCAA product, from whey protein or from a high-quality meat source such as chicken breast. Upon consumption of a leucine-rich meal, mTOR and MPS activation begins and will last for several hours, roughly 3-4 (fig. 1.). This indicates that eating 20-40g protein every 3-4 hours is ideal to ensure a consistent activation of MPS.
Although the above-mentioned findings indicate that higher frequency protein feeding is beneficial for consistent activation of MPS, there is no need to increase meal frequency when considering MPS activation as once MPS is maximally activated after consuming 4-6g of leucine, further consumption of leucine will not increase MPS. In summary, eating 20-40g of protein every 3-4 hours is a great way to ensure maximal activation of MPS and to prevent muscle protein breakdown which over a period of time can lead to hypertrophy.
Better appetite control
The idea that increasing meal frequency to six meals a day, for example, will reduce feelings of hunger is a broad statement that doesn’t consider the differences in eating preferences in people. What is often overlooked is that if someone is dieting and calories are relatively low then splitting those calories into six meals would give very small meals which would do very little for relieving hunger, in fact, it may promote a feeling of hunger and the urge to snack outside of the diet plan. Interestingly, the study by Ohkawara et al (2013) found that when eating six meals a day, the participants were considerably hungrier than those who ate three meals a day, which goes against this proposed benefit of high meal frequency. These results really highlight the important of personal preference when it comes to dieting, an individual is highly unlikely to stick to a diet plan that doesn’t suit their preferences of lifestyle and hence diet plans should be specifically tailored to these needs.
What can you do to cause fat loss?
Fat loss is far simpler than it is made out to be, the biggest factor in losing fat is down to energy balance which is a balance between calories in (food intake) and calories out (the calories we burn). To lose fat whilst maintaining muscle mass an individual should ensure that they:
- Reduce calories slowly by 200-500 below their maintenance calories
- Control the rate of weight loss to around 1lb per week
- Keep protein intake to between 2-3g per kilo of bodyweight
- Be patient
Based on the three factors discussed in this article, it appears that eating many small meals per day is not more beneficial than eating less frequent but larger meals in terms of fat loss. Although it is no more beneficial, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to do any harm. If an individual enjoys eating regular small meals, then that individual should definitely follow a meal plan that reflects their preference. Alternatively, if an individual prefers eating 2-3 times a day, that is also fine as long they’re in a calorie deficit and protein intake is kept high. At the end of the day, dietary adherence will determine the success of a diet and the diet plan should ensure that dietary adherence is maintained.
For any nutrition or supplement advice feel free to contact us at CSN where we would be more than happy to help.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4391809/ Ohkawara et al (2013)
- http://jap.physiology.org/content/jap/107/3/645.full.pdf - Phillips et al (2009)
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26024494 - Schoenfeld et al (2015)