How often have you read or heard the “6 small meals a day boosts metabolism” advice? It’s a mantra almost every health and fitness professional seems to encourage. But does this theory actually hold true?

Myth Buster: Several recent intervention studies found absolutely ZERO difference in metabolic rate or weight loss when they took into account meal size and frequency (all calories being equal).

One reason the old theory seemed plausible is due to something called the thermic effect of food (TEF). The thermic effect of food is the energy (calories) that your body spends to process, use and store the food you eat. TEF is averaged out to be approximately 10% of someone’s total caloric intake. For example, if you ingest 2,000 calories over the course of a day, around 200 calories will be burned through essential processes like absorption, digestion, and storage.

According to research, however, increasing meal frequency has no influence on TEF. For example, eating three meals of 600 calories each will cause the same thermic effect as eating six meals of 300 calories each. Meal frequency makes no difference.

Ok, so I still want to know if 3 larger or 6 smaller meals is better27009694_m
First off, WHAT you eat is going to play a large role in your overall health and metabolic functioning. A diet of processed foods containing metabolism-slowing chemicals can interfere with your natural calorie burning engines (you can learn more about that HERE).

Also, keep in mind that overeating, even if the food is uber-healthy, will slow down metabolism, put undue stress on your digestion, and fuel the aging process.

All that being said, here’s our best advice:

  • Keep a food journal: Just for a few days, track your eating. Note the time of day, what you eat, and when you get hungry. This offers a nice window into your current habits. If you are starving for a snack at 10am and you just ate breakfast at 8:30 or 9:00, you probably did not have enough to eat, or did not incorporate a good balance of protein and healthy fat to keep your blood sugars stable. If breakfast is at 6:00 am, a modest snack at 9 or 10 seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to get you through until lunch. Use the food diary to collect data so you can evaluate and make necessary adjustments.
  • It all comes down to listening to your body. If you can get by on three meals a day and avoid morning or mid-day hunger surges, the 3-meal-a-day plan is probably fine for you. However, if mid-afternoon strikes and you find your energy tanking, stomach grumbling, hands shaking, and brain fogging over, you likely need an energizing snack.
  • Check your HUNGER: Are you SURE you are hungry? You might just be thirsty (thirst masks hunger), or bored or anxious or looking to procrastinate. Your reason for eating should be true hunger; otherwise, you’re likely gonna store the extra food in your fat cells. If you have ruled out non-hunger reasons and still feel like you need a snack, by all means, dive in (gently, of course).
  • If you are going to snack, plan ahead.  If you know your body performs better with a snack or two, keep your kitchen or work place stocked with nutritious options.
  • Eat whole foods instead of processed foods. A snack is just that — a smaller version of a larger meal, not an excuse to eat junk food. Go for things like a bowl of soup, organic plain yogurt and fruit, a hard-boiled egg and raw veggies, or a handful of nuts. Click HERE to download our energizing snack ideas.

In the end, do what you feel works best for you. A good eating plan is successful only if you can live with it.

Tell us – which eating style works best for you?

Meal frequency and energy balance. Bellisle et al, 1997. British Journal of Nutrition
Influence of the feeding frequency on nutrient utilization in  man: consequences for energy metabolism. Verboeket-van de Venne and Westerterp, 1991. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the lower range of meal frequency. Smeets and Westerterp-Plantenga, 2008. British Journal of Nutrition.