Nutrition Myth-Busting: How Many Meals?

Nutrition myth-busting: “You must eat many small meals each day to keep your metabolism revving.”

Conventional dieting wisdom claims that it’s best to eat six to eight smaller meals each day, starting with breakfast upon first waking, to “stoke your metabolic fire” and keep it revving throughout the day. This way, you’re always burning fuel (food) and losing weight instead of gaining weight.
But let’s look at this dieting advice a little closer to see if it holds up.
Metabolism is defined as “the chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life.” Literally, your metabolism includes all of the processes that keep you alive – from your heart beating, to your respiration, to digesting food and excreting waste (it’s not all pretty, but there you have it).
Now, I’m not going to nerd out and go into all the details about metabolism. Suffice it to say, the word means more than just “food in, food out,” as most diet magazines and daytime health shows would have you believe.
So what does this have to do with how many meals you should eat throughout the day?
By the logic of “you must eat frequent small meals,” your metabolism should stop if you go too long without food. But it doesn’t. Whether your stomach is full or empty, these things still happen:

  • You’re always breathing;
  • Your heart always beats;
  • Your brain sends signals to your organs to make sure they’re working.

Your metabolism (the processes that keep you alive) is always revved up and running.
Unless you’re dead, in which case, I’m sorry for your loss.
Cool. So we can now agree that the “small frequent meals” myth doesn’t hold up to logic. Does that mean it’s detrimental to eat frequently? Not necessarily.
Studies show that no matter how many meals you eat throughout the day, as long as calories stay the same, your weight loss results will be the same. For example, if two people weighing 180 pounds are put on an 1800-calorie diet (which puts them in a calorie deficit), and one of them eats three 600-calorie meals while the other eats three 500-calorie meals and a 300-calorie snack, they will both lose the same amount of weight.
The number one, singularly most important rule of weight loss is that you must be in a caloric deficit. No matter what. Eat less calories than your body needs for maintenance or fat storage, and you will lose weight. That is a scientifically proven fact (it’s called the law of thermodynamics).
BUT, I would argue that eating several small, frequent meals actually makes weight loss more difficult for several reasons.
First of all, we live in a busy society. We are always go, go, go – busy doing something. The biggest excuse people give for not exercising is that they don’t have time to go to the gym. If that’s the case, who the heck has the time to eat eight meals every day?!
Secondly, eight meals means a lot of food preparation. Not only does that take up more of your precious time, but it involves a lot of decision making: what to buy at the grocery store, how to prepare it, how to pack it with you, when to eat each meal….
Third, the more meals you “need” to eat throughout the day, the more you test your will-power. Trying to stick to your meal plan eight times a day is a lot more challenging than 3-4 times.
Finally, eating eight meals makes you seem “weird” to your friends, family, and co-workers. It’s already hard enough to say “no” when people bring donuts to the office, the kids want pizza for dinner, or your friends suggest ordering dessert when you dine out together. Why make it harder on yourself to stick to a diet plan by setting yourself up as a social outcast who has to carry around a cooler of Tupperware?
(BTW: I have nothing against meal prep and Tupperware, I’ve done it myself. If you’re a bodybuilder or an athlete preparing for competition, it is part of the process. Otherwise, be “normal” and eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner like humans have been doing for most of our existence on this little rock called Earth.)
There you have it – diet myth, busted.
You do not have to eat small, frequent meals to lose weight. But you do have to control your caloric intake. If you would like to know more about how calories affect weight loss, I have an epic nutrition post available HERE on my blog. And if you need advice on how to stick to a calorie target for weight loss, check out THIS post for my top tips and tricks.