The meal frequency myth

“Eating five to six mini meals a day … keeps your metabolism humming 24/7,” proclaims a Redbook article. “Have a small meal or snack every 3 to 4 hours keeps your metabolism cranking,” notes a WebMD slideshow

You’ve probably heard similar statements—all based on the assumption that food grazing increases your basal metabolic rate (BMR) or the number of calories used in a day, leading to more fat loss.

Is there any truth to this? Are six meals a day better than three? And what about fasting? Does skipping meals negatively impact your health?

Deconstructing the metabolic fire analogy

Advocates of increased meal frequency usually compare BMR to a fire. If you think of a fire, the fuel is wood and when wood is thrown on an existing fire, more fire is produced, throwing off heat.

If you apply this analogy to people, the wood is calories from food and the reaction that produces heat is the thermic effect of food (TEF), which is the amount of energy your body has to expend to process food for storage and use.

Take a look at the chart below the bulleted list. It compares TEF for three people who eat the same amount of calories and macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates and protein):

  • One eats six meals a day (breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, an afternoon snack, dinner and an evening snack)
  • One eats the traditional three meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner)
  • One eats only two meals a day (breakfast and dinner)
Screenshot_061
This chart compares the thermic effect of food (TEF) during a day for three people who eat the same amount of calories and macronutrients, but eat in different patterns.

While the TEF spike duration and frequency is different, the total amount of TEF for all three individuals is identical. This means the amount of calories used in a day is the same, regardless of meal frequency.

The amount of calories used in a day is the same, regardless of meal frequency Click To Tweet

Research confirms this: Studies in both 1997 and 2010 noted as long the total amount of food eaten is the same, you can gorge or nibble—neither approach promotes more or less weight loss than the other.

Returning to the fire analogy, eating less but more frequently is like continually throwing kindling on the fire all day long whereas eating more in a sitting (but less frequently) is like throwing a big log on the fire.

What about fasting?

Many are fearful to skip meals because they hear that fasting lowers your BMR, putting your body into starvation mode.

This is oversimplified and inaccurate. It may be true that fasting decreases your BMR, but with one big caveat: It takes over three days of fasting to accomplish this.

In fact, researchers have found that short-term fasting actually increases the amount of calories you burn while at rest and doesn’t affect cognitive performance, activity, sleep or mood.

Could fewer meals be better for you?

A lot of recent research has come out in favor of eating less frequently. For example, a 2014 study found that frequent snacking might stress the liver, leading to a greater risk of fatty liver disease.  

Fasting for short periods of time has been found to have the following health benefits:

Numerous studies have shown that short-term fasting has health benefits and fewer meals may be better for you Click To Tweet

And lowers the risk of:

Eat the way that works for you

There’s no reason to stress out about meal frequency. If you find it easier to make healthy food choices by eating a couple of meals a day and a snack or two, then stick to that. If you like to spend more of the day fasting so you can enjoy larger meals and because it suits your schedule, then stay with that approach.

When it comes to weight loss, overall calories matter more than meal frequency, so always keep an eye on your portions. If you have issues with blood sugar control, work with your doctor to figure out a meal schedule that works for you. 

Reviewed by Kristen Kizer, R.D.
Jason Lauritzen

Jason Lauritzen

Social Media Program Manager at Houston Methodist
Prior to joining Houston Methodist, Jason worked in digital marketing, journalism and manufacturing.
Jason Lauritzen

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Jason Lauritzen

Prior to joining Houston Methodist, Jason worked in digital marketing, journalism and manufacturing.