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Why You Don’t Need To Eat Every 3 Hours – Meal Frequency Myths

Why You Don’t Need To Eat Every 3 Hours – Meal Frequency Myths

Tuesday, April 29, 2014 - 6:28am

Photo by Flickr user Maegan Tintari. License. Note: the photo was cropped relative to the original.

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There are a lot of fitness and weight loss myths out there that keep people from getting the results they want.  These include the idea that crunches will help you tone your stomach, “cardio” exercise for fat-loss, and the notion that you need to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day starting within minutes of waking up.   This last one – the myth of meal frequency – is a huge time waster and usually blocks fat-loss.  These are the 4 “supporting myths” that the are used to sell this myth.

Supporting myth 1:  Eating frequently accelerates your metabolism
While it is true that every time you eat your metabolic rate goes up to digest the food you ate, it is not true that you can somehow “trick” your body into expending more energy to digest the same amount of food.  That is to say that if you’re on a 2,000 calorie a day diet, your body will expend the same amount of energy to digest your food whether you eat one huge meal per day or six little, annoying and unsatisfying meals per day.

The research on meal frequency and metabolism is clear:

  • “In addition, no difference in total daily energy expenditure has been documented as a function of daily meal number. Weight loss is not facilitated by high meal frequency. Snacking in obese subjects is associated with higher energy.”  Source

  • “Finally, with the exception of a single study, there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency.” Source

  • “We conclude that increasing MF [meal frequency] does not promote greater body weight loss under the conditions described in the present study.”  Source

Supporting myth 2:  Eating frequently keeps you from getting too hungry
This is actually gym-science (or bro-science).  The research on this generally says the opposite.  If you take two groups of people and give them the same diet – same number of calories, etc. – the folks who have to split their food up into min-meals are hungrier.  As you know, dietary changes that make you hungry aren’t very conducive to fat-loss.

Yes, you have seen studies in the news looking at a correlation between decreased meal frequency and obesity, but these studies only show a correlation and not causation.  When scientists take a deeper look to isolate this factor – meal frequency, so they can get a good idea of if there is a cause-effect link, they find things like this:

  • “the fullness-related responses were consistently greater with higher protein intake but lower with increased eating frequency”  Source

  • “The LFr [LFr = low frequency, as in only 3 meals vs. 6] diet increased satiety and reduced hunger ratings compared with the HFr [HFr = high frequency] diet during the day.” Source

Supporting myth 3:  Skipping meals makes your muscles waste away
The theory is that if your muscles aren’t constantly bathed in a pool of fresh amino acids that your body will catabolize it’s own precious muscle mass.  This is great marketing if you sell protein bars and shakes, but it turns out that this is not true.  Your body doesn’t start to “eat” your muscles unless you go more than 24 hours without food.

What really matters is how much protein you consume in a day – is it enough for your goals and your body?  If you eat a diet without enough protein, but you eat 6 little meals a day, then your muscles are going to shrink.  And, if you consume enough protein for growth, but you cram it into 1 huge meal per day, then you will grow.

Supporting myth 4:  Skipping meals puts your body into “Starvation Mode” and will make it easier to get fat.
Our bodies do have a “starvation mode” where the metabolism slows down and other bad things happen, but this takes days (like 60 hours) to kick in not hours as the makers of protein shakes and bars would like you to believe.

Having a long period of the day where you don’t eat (in-frequent eating) probably makes it easier to lose fat.  There are several reasons why, and we have space to go over one:  When it comes to hunger (and fat-loss) insulin sensitivity is very important.  A long time between meals improves your insulin sensitivity (good).  Too short of a time between meals can steadily decrease your insulin sensitivity over time.  This can lead to many negative consequences – one of the biggest is it makes you hungry when you shouldn’t be, and this makes fat-loss very hard.  

What do I do now?
Give yourself the freedom to eat less often.  Maybe consider intermittent fasting.  In my not so humble opinion, this is one of the simplest and most practical “getting started” guides if you’d like to give it a try.

About the Author

Josef Brandenburg is a Washington D.C.-area fitness expert with 16 years of experience and co-author of the international best-selling book "Results Fitness." In 2004, he started True 180 Fitness (formerly The Body You Want) personal training program, which specializes in helping you get the body you want in the time you have available. Josef holds certifications from Precision Nutrition, American Council on Exercise, National Academy of Sports Medicine, Functional Movement Systems, Corrective High Performance Kinesiology, and the National College of Exercise Professionals. Learn more about Josef on his blog, follow him on Twitter and Facebook, or check out his fitness videos on YouTube.