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Meal Frequency – For Joe and Jane

June 28, 2011

Meal frequency, ie. the number of meals consumed daily, has been a hot topic of debate, especially in terms of weight management. Working as a nutritional consultant and speaking to all the “bro’s” in the gym, I have heard every suggestion from “eat every two hours” to “don’t eat after 6p” to “eat all your calories at breakfast.” Adding to the confusion, many bodybuilding  sites recommend eating 6+ solid meals per day whereas the weight watchers-esque sites say 3 meals with 2 snacks. So what is the right amount of meals to eat when trying to lose/maintain weight and why are there so many differing views?

In my mind there are two main problems contributing as to why we see so many different suggestions:

1: People tend to repeat completely unproven information as if it is cold hard fact

2: Not all weight management goals are the same.

For this exact reason, fitness enthusiasts and gym rats should refer to my other post on [link]Meal Frequency for the Athletes[/link], but I would highly recommend reading this article so you too do not promote problem #1!!!

The following information is specifically designed for everyone from the average sedentary person to those with moderate workout routines (especially those looking to lose weight)

So where did it all come from ...

The earliest studies on meal frequency and body composition were primarily epidemiological studies (basically surveys sent out randomly and returned) which determined that obese individuals consumed fewer meals per day than normal weight persons (aka. obese people eat less meals per day). (Fabry et al 1964, 1966) The validity of these statements are blemished by the fact that they are completely based on surveys and do not take into consideration truthful reporting by the individuals or total calorie intake either.

The following experimental studies give more concrete evidence towards the effect meal frequency has on body composition.

It always starts with rats …

Important experimental studies on meal frequency and possible effects on body composition were initially conducted on rats. Aysel Ozelci and partners from the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University conducted a study in the 1970’s to determine whether the feeding frequency of mice would effect their body composition. In nature, mice are considered ‘nibblers.’ If food is readily available they will consume small portions at a time, splitting their total calorie intake over several meals throughout a day. This pattern of high frequency meal consumption is referred to as a ‘nibbling’ eating pattern  (this would be the equivalent of our 6+ meals per day) . The ‘gorging’ pattern of food consumption is comprised of obtaining all daily calories within just one or two meals per day (Bellisle, 1997). One experiment in their research split rats into two groups categorized by their eating pattern. The rats in the ‘nibbling’ group were fed through an automated feeding device allowing them to consume their daily calories over the course of several small meals. Mice categorized as ‘gorgers’ were given the same amount of calories as the ‘nibblers’ but were forced to consume all their calories in just two meals daily. Analysis of the carcasses showed no body composition differences in rats following either the nibbling or gorging meal patterns. Ozelci and colleges reported that over the course of 7 weeks feeding frequency had no significant effect on the body composition of rats. Due to the similarities in human and mouse metabolism like results would be assumed for humans as well (Bellisle, 1997).

And then gets tested on humans …

Stote et al designed a study to test the effect of meal frequency on humans consuming a diet for weight maintenance. Subjects in the 8-week crossover study consumed all their calories during either 1 or 3 meals per day. All meals were provided to the subjects and proper consumption (at least 80% consumed) of the food was monitored. Blood samples and body composition tests were administered prior to, at the midpoint, and after the conclusion of the study. Neither group reported a significant change in fat mass or fat-free mass. The researchers concluded that feeding frequency had little effect on body composition when calories consumed equaled calories burned (the subjects did not gain or lose weight).  Interestingly aside from body composition results, the study also provided several biological markers of health. The 3 meal/day group reported significantly lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than the 1 meal/day group. Questionnaires throughout the study also showed that subjects consuming the 3 meal/day plan were more content with the diet and less hungry throughout the day. This may be surprising to many but they also showed no increased fat loss by increasing the protein content of the diet, but that is another topic for another day.

Continuing on …

One other major reason high frequency meal patterns are recommended seems to be the theory that splitting meals up throughout the day increases metabolism and burns more calories. If this is true, then the prior studies just may not have been conducted long enough to notice large enough fat loss. There is certainly a scientific basis to this theory. The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) is the calories that your body has to use to actually digest, absorb, transport, and utilize the food you eat. This means that every time you eat, your body actually burns more calories. Genius!! Now we should all go eat 10+ meals a day and we will have a higher metabolism and burn more calories! Good in theory, but the evidence really isn’t there. Researchers Taylor and Garrow used a direct means of measuring the amount of calories burned by obese individuals and gave them varying meal patterns (2,4,6 meals). Their study showed NO significant difference in calories burned when eating different amounts of meals as long as calories were the same.

Hmph … well there HAS to be some evidence out there if everyone is recommending eating many meals throughout the day right? What about hunger? Everyone says eating more often keeps you full so you eat less, right?

Just ask researchers Leidy JH and Campbell WW. They wrote a research review analyzing data from 176 different studies from 1980-2010!!! After choosing the best study protocols and relevant information, they came up with a couple solid conclusions:

1. Eating more than 3 meals per day showed no extra benefit on hunger or satiety levels as eating 3 meals per day.

2. Eating less than 3 meals per day makes it harder to control hunger than eating 3 meals per day.

So it appears that increasing meal frequency over the standard 3 meals/day shows little added benefit, BUT eating less than 3 meals per day actually makes it more difficult to control your diet.

CONCLUSIONS ON MEAL FREQUENCY:

It turns out that calories are calories. Whether you choose to eat them in one large meal or 10+ meals throughout the day, its all the same. It seems the number one factor in weight loss/management is total calorie consumption. There are some benefits to increasing meal frequency, as it has been shown that people tend to be less hungry when they eat at least 3 meals per day.

Piece of Cake … Nutrition:

The amount of meals you eat does not effect your metabolism or fat burning ability. However, if you eat at least 3 meals per day, it will likely help control hunger.

I apologize, because I’m sure many of you were looking for a really cool weight loss solution. As it turns out meal frequency does NOT seem to be it. HOWEVER, since calorie intake is the main regulator of weight management, the next article will specifically discus SCIENTIFICALLY PROVEN TECHNIQUES to reduce hunger cravings and help you eat less throughout the day.

References:

Bellisle, France, Regina McDevitt, and Andrew M. Prentice. “Meal Frequency and Energy Balance.” British Journal of Nutrition 71 (1997): S57-70. OhioLink. Web. Fall 2009. <http://olc1.ohiolink.edu&gt;.

Fabry, Pavel, and Jay Tepperman. “Meal Frequency – A Possible Factor in Human Pathology.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 23.8 (1970). OhioLink. Web. Fall 2009. <http://olc1.ohiolink.edu&gt;.

Fabry, P., Fodor, J., Hejl, Z., Braun, T. & Zvolankova, K. (1964). The frequency of meals: its relation to overweight,  hypercholesterolaemia, and decreased glucose tolerance. Lancet ii, 614-615. OhioLink. Web. Fall 2009. <http://journals.ohiolink.edu&gt;.

Fabry, P., Hejda, S., Cerna, K., Osoncova, K., Pechor, J. & Zvolankova, K. (1966). Effect of meal frequency in schoolchildren: changes in weight-height proportion and skinfold thickness. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 18, 358-361 OhioLink. Web. Fall 2009. <http://journals.ohiolink.edu&gt;.

Garrow, J. S. “The effect of meal frequency and protein concentration on the composition of the weight lost by obese subjects.” British Journal of Nutrition 5.85 (1981). OhioLink. Web. Fall 2009. <http://olc1.ohiolink.edu/&gt;.

Hansen, Oyvind. “The Meal Frequency Project: the effect of meal frequency on body composition during 12-weeks of strength training.” Thesis. University at Oslo, 2008. DUO. University at Oslo, 2008. Web. Fall 2009. <http://www.duo.uio.no/sok/work.html?WORKID=71651&lang=en&gt;.

Leidy JH and Campbell WW. “The Effect of Eating Frequency on Appetite Control and Food Intake: Brief Synopsis of Controlled Feeding Studies.” The Journal of Nutrition. 141: 154S-157S, 2011. Ovid. Web. June 2011

Stote, Kim S., and David J. Baer. “A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87 (2007): 981-88. OhioLink. Web. Fall 2009. <http://olc1.ohiolink.edu&gt;.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin permalink
    June 29, 2011 10:05 PM

    I have read that eating early in the day has a dramatic effect on your metabolism versus not eating breakfast. Should I be intaking a relatively large portion to start my metabolism or is a small breakfast enough to get the job done?

    • June 30, 2011 2:00 AM

      Ultimately the size of you breakfast will actually play, little to no role in your metabolic rate. The reason you likely read something about that is because MANY studies have shown that overweight and obese people are more likely to eat little to no breakfast, where as people with healthy weights generally do. However, these studies only show a correlation. For example if all obese people tend to buy black shoes, and all healthy people tend to buy white shoes, you wouldn’t go about changing the color of your shoes and think your going to lose weight right? So if eating/increasing the size of breakfast plays little in metabolic rate, then WHY do we see these very significant correlations? I can’t say for sure, but there is some evidence behind eating breakfast and reducing appetite for the next meal.

      In short, eat breakfast, but there is no difference between a LARGE or SMALL or NO breakfast on your metabolism. Hunger and fullness is a different issue …

      GREAT QUESTION!! because I will be covering breakfast consumption in the next article on Scientifically Proven Ways to Reduce Hunger and Eat Less

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