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Does Meal Frequency Affect Weight Loss, Metabolic Rate, and Appetite Control?

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Does Meal Frequency Affect Weight Loss, Metabolic Rate, and Appetite Control?

Does eating smaller meals boost your metabolic rate and help with weight loss? Is meal frequency important?

 

The claim that you need to eat many smaller meals per day to “stoke the metabolic” fire and accelerate fat loss and control hunger, has been part of the mainstream diet advice for quite some time.

It seems to make sense at first.

When you eat, your metabolic rate increases as it breaks down the food. Thus, if you eat every few hours, your metabolism will remain in a constantly elevated state, right? And nibbling on food throughout the day should help with appetite control, right?

Well, like many of the myths that seem to make sense on paper, they just don’t pan out in clinical research.

Meal Frequency, Your Metabolism, and Weight Loss

Each type of macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) requires varying amounts of energy to break down and process. This is the thermic effect of food, and is the metabolic “boost” that comes with eating.

The magnitude and duration of that boost depends on how much you eat. A small meal causes a small metabolic spike that doesn’t last very long, whereas a large meal produces a larger spike that lasts longer.

So the question, then, is does more, smaller meals per day increases total energy expenditure over a 24-hour period than fewer, larger meals?

Well, in an extensive review of literature, scientists at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research looked at scores of studies comparing the thermic effect of food in a wide variety of eating patterns, ranging from 1-17 meals per day.In terms of 24-hour energy expenditure, they found no difference between nibbling and gorging. Small meals caused small, short metabolic boosts, and large meals caused larger, longer boosts, and by the end of each day, they balanced out in terms of total calories burned.

We can also look to a weight loss study conducted by the University of Ontario, which split into two dietary groups: 3 meals per day and 3 meals plus 3 snacks per day, with both in a caloric restriction for weight loss. After 8 weeks, 16 participants completed the study and researchers found no significant difference in average weight loss, fat loss, and muscle loss.

So, while increasing meal frequency can make dieting more enjoyable for some, it doesn’t help us burn more energy and thus lose more fat.

Meal Frequency and Appetite

A study conducted by the University of Missouri with 27 overweight/obese men found that after 12 weeks of dieting to lose weight, increasing protein intake improved appetite control, but meal frequency (3 vs. 6 meals per day) had no effect.

The University of Kansas investigated the effects of meal frequency and protein intake on perceived appetite, satiety, and hormonal responses in overweight/obese men. They found that higher protein intake led to greater feelings of fullness, and that 6 meals actually resulted in lower daily fullness than 3 meals.

On the other hand, you can find studies wherein participants were less satiated on 3 meals per day, and found that increasing meal frequency increased feelings of fullness and made it easier to stick to their diets.

The bottom line is that there are many variables involved, including psychological ones, and clinical evidence shows that both more or fewer meals per day are effective for weight loss, and have no inherent drawbacks or advantages in terms of metabolic rate and appetite control.

So How Many Meals per Day, Then?

You might be surprised to learn that I often recommend that people eat several smaller meals per day.

Why?

Because, in my experience coaching hundreds of people, many are like me and prefer the feeling of more, smaller meals as opposed to fewer, larger ones. I personally don’t like eating 800-1,000 calories to then feel stuffed for several hours. I much prefer a 400-calorie meal that leaves me satisfied for a few hours, followed by another smaller meal with different food, and so forth.

As the cliché goes, the best dietary protocol is the one you’ll stick to, and reducing psychological stress goes far in increasing diet compliance and thus overall effectiveness.

That said, if someone can’t or doesn’t want to eat frequently, then we work out a meal plan with fewer, larger meals that fits their preferences or lifestyle. For some people, an intermittent fasting approach actually works best.

The bottom line is our hunger patterns are established by our regular meal patterns, so it’s usually easiest to work around this, not against it.

 

What’s your take on meal frequency? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

 

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  • MikeM

    Mike as usual I think you did a great job on this article. Just before finding your book I read Gary Taubes, China Diet, and others. I appreciate, respect and believe your articles, because you reference solid studies in peer reviewed journals. Plus, your articles are a good size. Excellent. A couple good references, and then you get to the bottom line.

    • Thanks Mike! Really glad you liked the article and I appreciate the kind words. Let me know if you have any questions I can answer!

    • Steve

      I agree. Mike is great.

      I’ve also read Taubes and Lustig (and even a few books on CR!) that left me thinking I knew the right way with diet. Then you get guys like plantpositive on YouTube who picks apart and counters everything Taubes and Lustig say with referenced studies, and it’s left me confused to buggery!!

      I tend to prefer Mike’s advice not only because he backs up what he says, but he is also living his advice – which makes it more powerful. Lustig is a child obesity expert, yet he himself is overweight. It doesn’t quite work!

      • Michael Matthews

        Thanks Steve! I really don’t like what Taubes and Lustig are doing. While it’s true that the average person that doesn’t exercise really has no reason to eat a lot of carbs, and regular intake of high-GI processed junk can definitely cause health issues, to broadly label carbs as evil is completely misleading.

        Lol Taubes was overweight when he published Why We Get Fat. Irony.

        • Steve

          Really?! It doesn’t surprise me. He’s not a fan of exercise from what I remember either. Something about doing exercise makes you eat more…

          Keep up the great work! 🙂

          • Michael Matthews

            Oh lord are you kidding me? LOL I have no respect for him. What a downright ridiculous position to take.

  • Christian

    Nice article.

    In terms of building and retaining muscle mass though, is it better to have a fairly steady protein intake every few hours throughout the day instead of a huge dose of protein 3 times per day which may not all get used?

    • Thanks Christian, and good question. The short answer is no, you don’t have to eat protein every 2-3 hours. You can eat larger amounts in one sitting, which will last you longer before you have to eat more. I will blog about this soon as it’s a good myth that I can address.

  • Great article, always stuff I can use : ) So then how many meals do you need to space out your protein enough so it all gets absorbed? Because can’t you only absorb like 50g per meal? So there has to be some spacing if I hope to get it all in there I assume.

    • Thanks Jenny! That’s a good question. I’m going to address this in a post to fully explain it, but basically the amount of protein you can absorb in one meal is quite high relative to your weight. For you, yeah 50-60 grams in one meal is probably a good upper limit, and for guys with a lot more muscle, we can eat upwards of 100 grams in one go and be fine.

  • Jean van Wyngaardt

    Its really good to know that eating is actually a flexible affair, especially the way I eat. I always get the calories I need to by the end of the day, but sometimes it takes me a little while to get started with my morning meals, I don’t always feel like eating straight out of bed!

    I like your article on fasting too, ties in nicely with this article.

    Thanks to these ideas and your general take on dieting in your books, it really makes life easy and eating easy. I’ve always lost interest quickly in body building diets because every other diet I’ve tried pushes you to eat at ‘exact’ times with ‘exact’ portions. Turns out, life is not that complex.. Its just patience and consistency that are key.

    Thanks Mike for your continual efforts as usual, keep these articles coming!

    • Thanks Jean! I’m really glad you liked the article.

      That’s perfect that you just make sure you hit your numbers by the end of each day. That’s what’s most important.

      I totally hear you on the joy of diet flexibility, haha. I used to follow SUPER strict diet plans myself and found it really impractical unless I was sitting by a fridge all day.

      Thanks again for your support!

  • Hebs

    Mike, what about meal frequency when it comes to being in an anabolic or catabolic state? It seems you’re implying that “3 squares” will keep you anabolic? I know there’s a lot more to this but I’m focusing on frequency.

    • Good question. I will be posting on this subject soon, but yes, as long as you eat enough protein by the end of each day you will be fine. There MAY be advantages to having protein every 4-5 hours, which is what we all do anyway. But you don’t have to obsessively eat protein every 2 hours to build muscle efficiently.

  • Javi Alvarez

    Mike, as always, great job! What about doing small meals so that your stomach can be reduced in size and you are more easily satiated? This may be a case of broscience, but maybe not.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Javi! That’s a good question. In my experience this doesn’t really matter as larger meals satiate you for longer periods than smaller meals…

      • Javi Alvarez

        Thanks! What I mean is that doing smaller meals, at first you will not feel satiated but your stomach (the organ) reacts reducing its size (not immediately, but over a few weeks maybe), so gradually, you can feel satiated with less food. It can happen the opposite that if you eat a lot in your meals, your stomach can increase its size and you will need gradually more food to feel satiated, thus developing a tendency to be fat! But I don’t know if that’s true. My mother told me that when I was young. Maybe it’s not broscience but is momscience 😀

        • Michael Matthews

          Yeah I know what you mean, and the stomach can expand and shrink based on regular food intake. What I’m saying those is you can reduce your meal size and probably shrink your stomach some, which would help with satiety. Or just eat larger meals, which would leave your stomach larger, but the larger meals themselves induce satiety. I think it’s really dependent on the individual…

          • Javi Alvarez

            Got it! Thanks mike!

          • Michael Matthews

            Welcome!

  • zen

    For me more meals everyday is better to spread the carbs and protein intake. Mike as you stated in the book, we can only take 40-50gm of protein per meal instead of eating 70 or more just to reach our goal or to equal on our weight, right?

    • Michael Matthews

      Yup, I’m the same way. Regarding maximum protein intake, more recent research actually indicates that it’s probably higher. I’ll blog about this soon but assume that us guys can take in upwards of 100 grams in one sitting without issue. (I’m updating the book to reflect these recent findings.)

      • zen

        Sounds good. In that way, I don’t need to worry if I missed my 3rd meal or the 5th meal…

        • Michael Matthews

          Exactly. You just need to make sure you hit your numbers every day.

  • Paul

    I prefer smoothies in the morning and at lunch of raw foods and plant protein. I also eat a lot of chia seeds with probiotic almond yogurt.

    • Michael Matthews

      That’s great Paul. As long as it’s working, keep it up! I also a prefer a smoothie for breakfast.

  • Steviebee

    Appreciate the research presented here! I have struggled with weight for 50 years, but I am down 90 lbs over the last 7 months. For me personally, knocking out the snacks has made a huge difference. Everyone is different, but for me not giving myself ‘permission’ to eat snacks has eliminated a major fault in my approach to food. I build my 3 meals around protein, and go from there. I am NEVER hungry between meals when I do this, and I am working out for almost an hour every morning before breakfast, 6 days a week. Thanks for the great article!
    Steviebee

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Steve! I’m glad you liked the article.

      Wow great job on your weight loss! That’s amazing. And that’s also great that you’ve figured out the eating schedule that’s best for your body. That’s what matters most!

      Keep up the good work.

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  • Jbrant(outlawbandit)

    I’ve noticed personally if i don’t get full off a meal i want to keep eating, eating, and eating, the smaller meals don’t cut it for me. I do like a snack in between the three meals with something that won’t keep me from sleeping at night right before bed. Nothing but water! with that said NOTHIGN BUT WATER! maybe some milk but even juice these days isn’t the best thing for you.(same with some milk) i seem to eat what i want and still gain results. I think it really matters just how hard you work your arzzz off. hard work always shows in the long run.

    • Michael Matthews

      Perfect! It sounds like you’ve worked out what is best for your body.

  • cleve latham

    Your articles are superb. I devour each one. So I’m trying to gain weight. I’m 62, 5’8″, 153 lbs., 9% bodyfat. I work with a trainer and yoga teacher. So I lift 5 days a week, practice yoga twice, and spin 2 or 3 times for cardio. I’m currently eating 2500 calories a day, except on 2 lo carb days, when I get more like 2100. % pro/carbs/fat is 40/35/25. Any obvious suggestions?

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Cleve! Cool on your stats. You’re in an awesome position to really focus on gaining muscle:

      Suggestions:

      1. You need to be focusing on heavy compound lifting. Call me biased but my Bigger Leaner Stronger program would be great for you.

      2. You shouldn’t be carb cycling. You’re lean and wanting to focus on growth. The most I would do is reduce caloric intake on rest days by a few hundred, but you need to make sure you’re eating enough:

      https://www.muscleforlife.com /the-best-way-to-gain-muscle-not-fat/

      3. Your protein should cap at 1 gram per pound, your fats at about 20% of daily calories, and the rest should be carbs.

      4. Keep the cardio to under 2 hours per week, Too much will hinder muscle growth to some degree.

      Hope this helps!

      • Cleve

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I can adjust the meal plan, but unfortunately I can not do traditional weighted squats and deadlifts because of degenerative discs at L4 & 5. So I’m trying to figure out how to compensate for that problem.

        • Michael Matthews

          My pleasure! That’s totally fine. Work around what you CAN do…

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  • Think, Act, Enjoy

    I have been very successful following the guidelines of a change in the way one eats called Metabolic Balance. I started at 275 and am now 201 and that in a span of 10 Months.

    I had tried the short spanning throughout most of my diets. Now after changing the way I eat permanently I loose. The point that is relative to this string is that I eat and leave a min of 5 hours between meals, but not more than seven unless I am sleeping over night.

    Why?

    The body is not stupid. It hungers first for sugar that can move into the blood quickly. By “topping off” the hormone that does this transfer “insulin” never shuts down which results in fat storage for that which exceeds the immediate needs. It takes time for food to go from the stomach to the small intestine where it gets a chemical bath that breaks down the chemical nutrients. This hits the Hershey highway where the amino acids have to be absorbed along with the nutrients. That path is meters long before it leaves the body.

    If the body is given sugar it more or less stops or retards these other processes from working off all that they have been given. The result is what is in there does not get converted to energy that is current burn but is converted to future burn. One is, therefore, better off to let the body get finished before one starts up again. It allows the uptake of nutrients to be uninterrupted by “sugar time” furloughs.

    It does benefit one to have a longer time between meals in sleep 1 – 2 times a week. Instead of 8 hours sleep go for 12 hours. Before doing so drink a 1.5 liters of natural water. You will find that your morning bathroom break is easier because that water improves the fluid balance in the lower intestine and allows the body to take fresh water instead of drying out the food one eats in order to reclaim water. This little realization will allow your transportation of sugars and carbons to be more fluid than solid. Fluids flow more quickly and thereby your body can do what it needs to transport waste energy…both solid and fluid away from the current intake.

    Water is important…a normal human is mostly water but about 9 liters is needed and if we only drink 1 or 2 then the body constantly dries out our waste to get the fluids needed for body function. Schedule drinking often and before meals and before bed.

  • Snowy 20

    Hi Mike. I have been following “thinner, leaner, stronger” now for nearly 4 weeks. I work various shifts. When I exercise in the morning I don’t eat prior but have protein after my workout and have 3 meals per day on late shifts. On early shifts, I exercise at teatime after work and have 4-5 small meals and protein shakes. Varying my meals has made no difference to my weight or inch loss. I have so far lost 3.5 inches off waist, 4 inches off hips, however bust has increased 1.5inch. I don’t weigh myself but my clothes and overall composition tell me I am leaner and much stronger. Nothing falters in the gym mixing my meals up depending on what shifts I work.

  • ktugs

    I’m confused though. One of the biggest trends I’m noticing with clients who can’t lose weight is that they starve all day and then eat roughly 800-1200 calories worth of food (usually like ice cream, pizza or lasagna) at night, usually late…. They still aren’t over eating, and they exercise at least 3 days a week intensely. Usually once they start eating breakfast (eggs, oats: good breakfast), even if dinner remains the same, they lose weight. If timing of food intake is irrelevant then why aren’t these people losing weight when they aren’t exceeding 1500 calories a day?

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  • Charlene Thorson

    I have enjoyed this article very much. However, I prefer to eat three good sized meals a day. I am currently at 22.1% body fat and I would like to reduce that to around 10%. I eat a raw vegan diet and I am trying my best to construct meals that will meet my macro needs but I am so confused that my head is spinning.lol. I want to build muscle but I need to do it gradually as I get stronger so what is really the best method for me? I am really hoping for some straight answers really soon. Thanks for taking the time to respond!

  • Breadking

    question about meal timing. What happens if you eat 3 meals per day, with the largest meal being supper, but relatively late (between 8 and 9 pm and bedtime around 11 PM). Does that make a difference in terms of contributing to fat due to less energy output overnight?

  • Max

    Hey Michael,
    great article, this was exactly what I was searching for. However there’s one question that’s bothering me and I’d be really grateful if you had an answer to it.
    I’m a little confused by carb timing and I’m wondering if my body would be more likely to store these as fat if I consume a large amount in one sitting compared to smaller amounts in say three sessions. To me it seems like the body just doesn’t need so many carbs at once so what does it – especially if I am not exercising do with all the carbs in case they are not stored as fat?To me this seems to be an issue at night time as there is only little energy needed and since our body tries to be efficient it would make sense to me that it stores this excess energy as body fat.
    I hope my question is understandable.

    • Hey Max!

      To answer your question, no. Carb timing doesn’t matter either. I recommend having carbs particularly pre-workout and post-workout, but otherwise, whatever time you want to have them is fine.

      In the end, it all comes down to energy balance. If you’re eating less cals than you are burning, you will lose weight. It’s as simple as that. Check this out:

      http://www.muscleforlife.com/best-diet-plan/

      Hope that clears it up for you. LMK what you think!

  • Zachary Lipen

    Hello Micheal,
    Appreciate the article and insights shared here. I was expecting to see some studies that have actually established that food frequency and timing significantly increases obesity. Hope there are studies on that… Meanwhile, let me assume that our body organs need some rest between meals for effective function. Lots of frequent meals do not give the organs (like the stomach) sufficient time to rest. We tend to overload and keep the stomach busy all the time. Likewise the liver and other digestive organs. What do you suggest the long term impact of that would be?

    • Thanks Zach!

      Meal frequency could never cause weight gain — only a caloric surplus can do that.

      There are no long-term consequences of eating more frequently so long as you’re eating sensibly.

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