What is the correct amount of meals per day?
Is it 3?
Is it 17?
Does 6 meals a day actually stoke the metabolic fire?
Okay, what is the “metabolic fire” anyways? I always get this mental image of little cartoon cavemen looking cells gathered around a fire in your stomach, adding more balls of chewed up food to it to keep the fire going. The mental image is as ridiculous as the idea that 6 meals a day actually does anything differently to your body as 3 or 17 meals.
But in case you aren’t convinced, let’s deep dive.
The founding principle on weight loss, weight gain, or weight maintenance, is energy balance. The first law of thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. In case you saw the word thermodynamics and said “Ight, I’mma head out”, this will not be a thermodynamics article.
So let’s apply this to food.
The food you eat is converted to energy. You then use that energy to make your heart beat, your liver function, to walk, or to play unicycle hockey (look it up after reading this, you won’t regret it).
Any food that your body does not convert to energy, gets stored as fat.
And when your body gets less energy than it needs for unicycle hockey, it burns fat to make up for the missing energy.
In short: More energy = stored fat, less energy = burned fat.
So with this knowledge in mind, it stands to reason, that meal timing literally would not make a difference. BUT, there are ways other than unicycle hockey that your body burns calories.
The Thermic Effect Of Food (TEF)
One of the many ways your body burns calories is through something called the thermic effect of food. Which basically just means the calories that your body burns through digesting something. It takes energy for your body to push McRibs down your gullet and through your GI tract (which burns calories, albeit a relatively small amount). Not all foods have the same thermic effect. Protein rich foods generally have a higher thermic effect than carb or fat rich. Ever wonder why the meat sweats are a thing? There you have it.
So is it possible that more meals = more calories burned from food?
Let’s use some simple math to clear this up. Don’t worry, you can leave your TI-84 Graphing Calculator in your 11th grade classroom for this.
So let’s take two fictional people, that both eat the same 3,000 calories per day.
Let’s call Person 1 Hagrid, and person 2, Han Solo.
Hagrid eats 3 meals of 1,000 calories each day.
Han Solo eats 6 meals of 500 calories each day.
Let’s assume a generic TEF of 10% (pretty standard).
10% of 1,000 calories is 100, times 3 meals a day (1,000 * 0.1 * 3) = 300 calories burned through TEF each day.
10% of 500 calories is 50, times 6 meals a day (500 * 0.1 * 6) = 300 calories burned through TEF each day
No matter how many meals you eat per day, the thermic effect of food remains the same.
Now it’s important to note, that the thermic effect of food will increase with more meals at higher calories, but this is only because of the higher calories, and nothing to do with the number of meals being eaten,
Do What Feels Right
So, it seems we’ve reached the conclusion of as for as any metabolic benefits, meal frequency means Jack and shit
But there is one benefit of meal frequency that can make all the difference, and it’s highly individualized. The major thing that varying meal frequencies will affect, is what you are most apt to stick to. Whether eating one meal of all your calories is your jam, or if you like to eat 17 small meals throughout the day because you like to snack. The key takeaway with this is that it has no impact on your metabolism. But it does have an impact on your consistency.
If you’re a person who likes eating breakfast, intermittent fasting isn’t right for you.
If you’re a person who hates breakfast, then eating less meals may be right for you.
Whatever you will be most consistent with is what you should do.
You can vary that. What matters most, is that you’re hitting your calorie target.
1. The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6520689/>
2. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: meal frequency <https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-8-4>
3. Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19943985/>
4. Effect of meal frequency on the thermic effect of food in women <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2387273/>
5. McDonald, Lyle. Meal Frequency and Energy Balance <https://bodyrecomposition.com/research/meal-frequency-and-energy-balance>