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.
Seriously? Actually, it’s kind of a relief. I get so tired of trying to follow all the ‘magic rules’ to lose some weight that I become obsessed with these kinds of details and never get anywhere.
I keep coming back to your blog because you always help me cut through the c*ap and stick with the simple. It’s helped me more than anything.
Thanks so much for putting this up today, it’s just what I needed!
Diana, just what I was hoping you’d feel – relief!
It’s not that complicated. Somehow we’ve taken small, perhaps interesting phenomenon and made them the holy grail of weight loss. We just end up getting confused and derailed.
Thank you so much for your comments today!
Hi Again Lani-
Thanks for replying to my comment.
It’s an interesting topic-and phenomenon-indeed.
I’m very much looking forward to reading your future article that will continue the discussion!
Thanks for the congrats on the 18 pounds… it feels wonderful to fit into my clothes again-and not be afraid of the scale! Woo Hoo!!!
Your Friend and Fan-
Nice to know no difference either way. I had recently read (but can’t recall where) that the mini-meals would actually prevent weight loss because they provided regular, quick ‘fuel’ access that never allowed my body to expend the stored fat for needed energy. And if I wanted to stick to mini meals, I should alternate so that every other one did not contain any carbs that would provide quick energy, thus not allowing my body to burn some fart calories.
Sylvia, thanks for the giggle on your ‘edit correction’!
Here’s the thing. The only thing preventing dipping into fat stores is a calorie consumption level that doesn’t require it. Alternating meals, cutting or adding carbs in some kind of strategy, does not trump pure and simple calorie deficit. Don’t addle your brain with the rest of it. Your body will burn calories from its fat stores with a calorie deficit day-to-day, not according to how you rotate macro nutrients within the day.
I appreciate you popping in and sharing your thoughts. Thanks Sylvia!
‘fat’ caories, not ‘fart’ calories! LOL
I have always done better eating three good-size meals a day rather than graze. When I start grazing, I always eat more than I intended. I just make sure that each meal is full of vegetables that fill me up.
Good strategy Sherie – keeping your veggie count high keeps your calorie density at a level conducive to keeping a leaner weight or losing weight if you need it.
Thanks for your comments!
How does this relate to eating and the glycemic index? My guess is that eating many meals a day that are low-glycemic, would be advantageous over eating 3 larger meals a day that contain white rice, bread or pasta. And, grazing on high glycemic foods all day long, would be less beneficial than eating 3 low-glycemic healthy meals. Quality of food/nutrition must make more of a difference than number and size of meals, don’t you think?
I like to eat smaller low-gylcemic meals as I do not get the cravings I would get otherwise. And, when I eat larger meals, my stomach seems to get larger (visibly also) and then wants larger meals.
Thank you, Lani, for stating that one still needs to honor what works for the individual!
Dodi, high glycemic as per processed food will get you either way and that’s a whole other ballgame! It just complicates things when we mess with mother nature on food processing, as you clearly point out.
I find that eating two meals a day with at max a mini-meal in the evening does a better job of keeping me energized. I know my food digests better, and all signs of acid reflux disease have disappeared since I switched to dinner-weight breakfasts and lunches and snack-sized dinners.
Denise, how great is that – finding your way around the acid reflux by timing and sizing your meals. Congrats and thanks for sharing!
For ‘me’ the reasoning behind me eating ‘mini’ meals is really to keep my blood sugar stable. And even at that, I don’t call them ‘meals’. A bowl of fruit mid day does the trick, or a HEALTHY granola bar mid morning works. I never thought about it in relationship to metabolism!! Great article!!
Grayce, meal, snack – I just call it eating, actually! Sounds like you’ve found a great rhythm. Glad you like the article! Thanks.
Great news Lani! I was looking for answers for the ‘keeping blood sugar stable’ argument too. It would be a huge relief not to have to worry about meal timing – I actually prefer NOT to eat so often, but keep hearing that I need to keep my blood sugar levels stable by eating frequent small ‘meals’. Please tell me I can just go with what feels good too! 🙂 My tendency would be to eat 2-3 times a day…
Jenn, is something broke that needs fixing? If you feel you are having blood sugar problems, what you eat has more to do with it than when If you are having even energy and feel good with ‘3’, then you’re doing great. Eating more often won’t deliver a ‘big fat burn’ as we may be led to believe so don’t give it another thought.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts today – Lani
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