It’s time to shatter another fitness myth.
A few days ago, I signed up for a 10-day free “fitness and fat loss” ecourse.
It musta been my evil twin.
OK, I admit it, I so suspected that it would be a rehash of the same old fat-loss myths that have been perpetuated like a bad game of ‘telephone’ that I couldn’t pass it up.
I’m sooo bad.
Today the topic in the ‘fitness and fat loss’ ecourse in question is:
“How to schedule your meals for fat loss and metabolism”:
Eating five or six small meals a day is a much better way to slim down than eating the traditional three large meals a day. Of course, never skip meals because it slows your metabolism. Small meals throughout the day are a great way to give your body continued energy without storing fat. If you want to take fat burning to a new level, it is time for you to begin strategically timing your small meals.
OK, I don’t know where to start. I ranted about this same myth over a year and a half ago, yet it’s still ‘out there’ messing with our heads as much as ever.
No doubt you have heard this same information from multiple directions for years.
But is there truth to this which has now become “conventional fat loss wisdom”?
Or is it a fitness myth waiting to be broken through for information we can really use? I’ve talked about this one before, yet obviously it still needs to be addressed.
Here Are My Questions:
1) Do mini-meals fire up your “metabolism”?
Let’s put it another way – if you are trying to “recomposition” your body to have a lower fat-to-muscle ratio, is it an advantageous practice to spread your meals for the day out to multiple “mini-feeds”?
2) Do 5 – 6 or more mini meals a day increase your metabolic rate as opposed to fewer meals per day of larger size each?
A review of the literature reveals just as I suspected.
This may be a bit lengthy, and is guaranteed to include some egghead sections (research abstract excerpts), stay with me for a couple more minutes.
What I Found Out
Perhaps the most significant journal paper I came across is a study on reported in the British Journal of Nutrition. This paper reviews “…studies relating meal frequency to body weight, and attempts to integrate these with the results of physiological investigations on meal frequency and energy balance”.
Simply put, this study investigates the question: is there evidence to support the prescription of multiple small meals daily as opposed to fewer, larger meals when it comes to inspiring a metabolic rate response that would impact weight? One of the strengths of this study is that it includes a review of the literature and results available from multiple studies.
[Reference: Bellisle F et. al. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. (1997) 77 (Suppl 1):S57-70.]
Guess what? Over a 24 hour period, apparently there IS no difference.
So, Why Do I Keep Getting Those Emails From “Pros” About Mini-Meals and Optimal “Metabolism”?
Maybe you keep getting these too.
If not, I’m sure you see them all over the web, in the news, and repeated-as-mantra from many corners of the fitness universe.
It is not hard to figure out how the mini-meals-and-metabolism ball got started on its roll.
You see, there actually IS a phenomenon called “Thermogenic Effect of Feeding” (TEF – yes, it even has its own official acronym). There IS a thermogenic – or heat producing (translation: stimulated metabolic rate) effect every time you eat. The extrapolation from this has been, well, then eat more often, get more thermogenic stimulation, right?
Not so fast.
According to the research, there is also a GREATER thermogenic effect from larger meals. If you take the 2, smaller minis and fewer larger (in the research they are referred to as “nibble” and “gorge”), over a 24 hour period there is no difference of thermogenic effect. The larger meals have a HIGHER overall thermogenic stimulating effect, the mini-meals have a smaller, though more frequent effect. As a matter of fact, overnight metabolic rate induction from fewer larger meals was strong.
Evidently it all comes out the same in the wash.
A detailed review of the possible mechanistic explanations for a metabolic advantage of nibbling meal patterns failed to reveal significant benefits in respect of energy expenditure. Although some short-term studies suggest that the thermic effect of feeding is higher when an isoenergetic test load is divided into multiple small meals, other studies refute this, and most are neutral.
More importantly, studies using whole-body calorimetry and doubly-labelled water to assess total 24h energy expenditure find no difference between nibbling and gorging. Finally, with the exception of a single study, there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency.
We conclude that any effects of meal pattern on the regulation of body weight are liely to be mediated through effects on the food intake side of the energy balance equation.
The above review paper examined not only earlier observational work but also direct studies of varying meal frequency on either metabolic rate or weight loss. With the exception of one poorly done study, no connection was found between varying meal frequency and any of the examined results.
No increase in weight loss, no relative overall increase in metabolic rate, no nothing. Nada. Zip.
They concluded that earlier studies finding an effect of meal frequency on weight gain (or loss) had more to do with changes in appetite or food intake, not from any direct impact on metabolic rate.
For example, early observational studies discovered that people who skipped breakfast were heavier and this still resonates with conventional thought today idea that skipping breakfast makes you fatter. The review points out that this may be confusing cause and effect: people often start skipping meals to lose weight.
Then Why Have We Gotten The “Mini-Meal Metabolism” Story For So Long?
Marketing madness, I suspect, has played a big role here. What better opportunity for snack food companies, energy bar moguls, between-meal-shake folks, bodybuilding supplement companies, and every one else who wants us to buy their edibles?
(An interesting anecdote from my friend Brad Pilon, who researched meal timing metabolism extensively for his work Eat Stop Eat: Brad worked for several years in the food-supplement-for-body-builders industry and will be the first to tell you that one of their key marketing tools was to hook this what I call “partial information”. More on Eat Stop Eat in 5 Reasons To Try Mini Fasts and Mini-Fasts: My 4 Month Report)
Am I Telling You To STOP The Mini Meal Schedule?
If you like the rhythm, and it suits your needs and is successful for you for a variety of reasons, do what works for you!
As a matter of fact, there ARE some reasons and circumstances in which mini meals may be the best choice, unrelated to TEF; that’s the topic for another article.
But if you are doing the mini-meal routine because you think that it provides a big metabolic rate boost, there just isn’t the scientific evidence to support it. There are other reasons mini-meals may be advantageous; for example, we may be in more control of our appetites by eating more frequently throughout the day.
Yet on it’s own, the mini-meal gig won’t wake you up pounds thinner.
What is your favorite eating rhythm? What have you found works for you best? Please leave your thoughts in Comments below.