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Can Meal Frequency Affect Weight Loss?

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You might have heard that eating smaller, more regular meals can increase your metabolism and help you burn fat. Many magazine articles and blogs advocate aiming for 5-6 meals per day in order to rev up your energy burn and ‘stoke the metabolic fire’.

But does meal frequency increase your weight loss or is it just another diet myth?

In this article we’ll take a look. This is what we’ll cover:

  • What is meal frequency
  • The science – does eating more regularly help you lose weight?
  • What are the real world implications of eating regularly?

What do we Mean by Meal Frequency?

Small and more frequent eating – often referred to as ‘grazing’ or ‘nibbling’ – is a pattern of eating where multiple meals are ingested throughout the day. This is a different approach to the more traditional three meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Traditionally, regular eating is a common clinical nutrition intervention, particularly when recovering from surgery or if the patient suffers from a stomach or intestinal illness.

Over the last few years however, this pattern of diet has become popular with those aiming to burn more fat or lose weight for aesthetic reasons, not just health. The idea works on the premise that the thermic effect of feeding is higher when meals are divided into multiple small meals [1].

Furthermore, it has been suggested that weight loss through more regular eating may be explained by favorable effects on appetite control and possibly on gut peptides as well [2].

What this means is that by eating more regularly we can increase the amount of energy we burn in a day by ‘topping up’ the metabolism through food, that will then stimulate weight loss – whereas not eating regularly will send the metabolic rate plummeting into the so called ‘starvation mode’.

But is this true? Let’s see what the studies say…


Weight-Loss-Strategies

The Science – Does Meal Frequency affect Weight Loss?

Research into how often to eat in order to optimize body composition goes back to around 20 or so years ago. Since then there have been a number of studies done on this topic area. Here is a breakdown of the studies you need to know about:

In a review study published in Advances in Nutrition [3] the authors looked at any study relating to meal frequency up to the end of 2012. They wanted to see if there were any benefits to higher eating frequencies.

Their findings suggested that out of the 6 controlled studies chosen for the review, no significant differences in weight loss were attributable to how often the participants ate. 

They also suggested that any studies that had found benefits up to that point were “complicated by differences in definition of eating frequency and limited knowledge of systematic and random errors in measurement”.

Similar results were seen in a study based at the Zuyderland Medical Center in the Netherlands [4]. The authors of this study asked 10 volunteers to eat the same amount of overall daily calories for a week, but split into either 2 meals per day or 7. 

On day 7 of the study they were asked to visit a research laboratory where their metabolic rates were assessed over a 24-hour period. Their metabolisms were then measured for a further 2 weeks using a special type of water called ‘doubly-labelled water’.

The researchers reported that there were no significant differences between the two groups in any measure of metabolism – including energy expenditure or thermogenesis. 

Lastly, another research paper from The British Journal of Nutrition [2] investigated the link between meal frequency and weight loss in 2 different groups:

  • Group 1: 3 meals per day plus 3 snacks
  • Group 2: 3 meals per day

In order to cause weight loss in both groups, they were given the same restrictive daily calorie amount of 2931kJ/700kcal over an 8 week period – it was just how often they ate that was different.

As expected with such a restrictive diet, significant weight loss occurred in both groups, however there were no differences between groups in not only weight loss, but appetite measurements or ghrelin levels – a gut hormone that stimulates appetite.


Meal-Timing-for-Fat-Loss

Real life Considerations

As we’ve seen, meal timing plays no real importance when it comes to weight loss, only the total amount of calories. It doesn’t seem to influence appetite either.

There may even be evidence to suggest that in aiming to eat regularly, you end up eating more calories than you need. This can lead to weight gain.

What is apparent though is that the body may not be hardwired to be in a constant ‘fed’ state. Metabolic processes such as autophagy – where the body degrades and regulates some of its own cells in order to restore and recycle itself – occur during times of short-term fast [5]. So longer periods in-between meals allows this process to occur more optimally.

Forced eating – aiming to eat every 2-3 hours even when not hungry – can set up unrealistic and possibly unhealthy eating rituals. Constantly worrying about food can be inconvenient and harbor bad habits and attitudes. Additionally, preparation of meals and constant storage and transport of food in Tupperware containers can also be inconvenient.


Summary – does eating more regularly help you lose weight?

Small and more frequent meal eating, often referred to as ‘grazing’ or ‘nibbling’ is a dietary pattern where multiple meals are eaten throughout the day. This is a different approach to the more traditional three meals a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Although common in clinical nutrition intervention, this type of diet has become popular with those aiming to burn more fat or lose weight for aesthetic reasons, not just health.

The evidence however suggests that how often you eat has no effect on how much weight is lost, only the overall amount of calories eaten. There also appears to be no difference in appetite or gut hormone levels either. Eating regularly may even contribute to an overall positive energy balance that will, in the long-term, only result in you putting weight on so regular snackers need to careful and monitor their food intake well.

For some, preparing many meals for the day can be inconvenient and laborsome – if you are forcing food into your body every 2-3 hours when not hungry it may even result in you developing unhealthy relationships with food as well.


References

  1. Bellisle, F et al. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. 1997; 77 Suppl 1: S57-70
  2. Cameron, JD et al. Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. Br J Nutr. 2010; 103(8): 1098-101
  3. Kant, AK et al. Evidence for efficacy and effectiveness of changes in eating frequency for body weight management. Adv Nutr. 2014; 5(6): 822-8
  4. Verboeket-van de Venne, WP et al. Effect of the pattern of food intake on human energy metabolism. Br J Nutr. 1993; 70(1): 103-15.
  5. Alirezaei, M et al. Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy. Autophagy. 2010. 16(6): 702–710