Internet forums of the late ’00s and early 10’s, loved to preach eating 6 meals a day. Benefits included “stoking your metabolism”
Analogies were usually made, such as placing lots of little logs on a fire to keep it burning.
To give credit to the idea, all the ripped bodybuilders were doing it. So if it worked for them, why not us, right?
As I like to say correlation doesn’t mean causation. What about all the other things bodybuilders do?
- Eat-in a caloric deficit
- Eat low energy-dense foods
- High protein diet
- Exercise regularly
These factors will have a stronger indicator of losing body fat.
Let’s look at what the evidence of meal frequency suggests.
Reasons 6 meals a day works
So first of all, I’m going to give credit. Observations do show those who eat more often, such as 6 meals a day, tend to have better health outcomes. This is compared to those who eat less frequently.
Some studies have shown that eating 6 meals a day or more, means you’re more likely to carry less body fat.
But does that mean everyone needs to start eating lots of small meals everyday?
Not so fast.
These studies show other factors may come into play.
For instance, those that eat fewer meals, have other various habits:
- More likely to smoke
- Drink more alcohol
- Eat more sugar and saturated fat
- Have irregular eating patterns
- Less likely to exercise
- Have more irregular snacks
Whereas those who eat small frequent meals are much more likely to:
- Exercise regularly Drink less
- Not smoke
- Have a regular eating pattern
- Eat lots of fruit and veg
- Limit processes food, sugar and saturated fat
- Snack less frequently
In the kindest way possible. The people that eat 6 meals a day are likely to be health nuts. Whereas those that eat fewer meals a day are more likely to follow the standard western diet. And in the nicest way possible the standard western diet is poor.
What do controlled studies show?
So from an observational perspective 6 meals, a day might be better. But what happens when calories are controlled?
One meta-analysis, in 2015, analysed 14 different studies. A couple of studies that were removed did not take calories into account. When calories were equal, there was no meaningful difference in body composition. (1)
“Removal of these studies via regression analysis had no impact on any of the outcomes, indicating that under calorie-controlled conditions, meal frequency does not alter measures of body composition”
Thus, when calories are matched, the frequency of how often you eat doesn’t seem to impact body weight.
Even though that may be the case. Is there an argument to suggest eating more frequent meals will help with appetite?
Reasons for eating 6 meals a day
Though eating 6 meals a day may not be magic, there may be some benefits to eating little and often. These benefits can include:
- Might be less likely to snack, due to meal frequency – Snacking is shown to be a reason people overeat on calories. Having more frequent meals, might be a useful tool to prevent midles snacking
- Placebo may make you eat healthier – Placebos are powerful. By eating more small frequent meals, some may make healthier choices. This could be to coincide with their new style of eating
Reasons against eating 6 meals a day
There isn’t enough evidence to definitely say eating more frequently boosts metabolism. There are other reasons eating 6 meals a day may be more hindrance than a help for people.
- Takes a lot of time to prepare – For a lot fo people, getting to eat 6 meals per day is going to be highly unrealistic
- Some people need larger meals to feel full – This is an anecdote, which I have noticed with myself and clients. Eating larger meals tends to keep you fuller
- for longer. Thus, there’s an argument, that eating small meals, could make you hungry and food focused
So when looking at the evidence, so far it doesn’t look too likely that eating 6 meals a day would boost your metabolism. If you’re eating fewer meals, I can’t see why you’d want to change.
Yet, if eating 6 meals a day works for you, there is no reason to change. Who knows, maybe in the future we may find evidence to suggest there is a small benefit.
If controlling your weight is your priority, focus on the basics. Basics, such as; calories, protein, and food quality. If you have all your rocks in order, then playing with meal frequency could be the icing on the cake.
All I can suggest, is do what you prefer and not to lose sleep on any of this.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.