Do I need to eat six times a day to stoke my metabolism?

By Aadam | August 26, 2019

Out of the many nutrition myths that are prevalent today, this is perhaps one of the most pervasive.

The claim: Eating more frequent meals spread throughout the day will keep your metabolism ‘stoked’ and in turn will help you burn more fat (and store less fat).
Whether intentional or not, this idea stems from a misunderstanding of what’s actually going on. When you eat there is, in fact, an increase in metabolic rate but this is due to the thermic effect of food. The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) is the number of calories your body burns digesting the food from the meal you ate.
However, while there is an increase in metabolism via TEF when you eat a meal, the idea that this increase is meaningful enough to burn fat (and/or prevent fat storage as we’ll discuss later) is not only wrong but can lead to people gaining even more weight.
What, why?
The Thermic Effect of Food only equates to ~10% of total calorie expenditure and this amount stays the same regardless of the number of meals a person eats.
The difference is that the person eating more frequently will see more ‘spikes’ in metabolism throughout the day due to TEF while someone eating less frequently will see fewer spikes throughout the day.
Like so.
More frequent eating will cause more spikes due to TEF, while less frequent eating will cause fewer, yet larger spikes.
But, there’s somewhat of a paradox to the 6 small meals for better fat loss claim. Here’s why.
Let’s assume we have three different people consuming 2000 calories per day split into three different meal frequencies. One consumes the 2000 calories in 5 meals per day; one consumes the 2000 calories in 3 meals per day; one consumes the 2000 calories in 2 meals per day.
We can represent this in a graph like so.

– Green: 5 meals per day
– Red: 3 meals per day
– Blue: 2 meals per day

Notice that the blue bar – 2 meals per day – actually increases your metabolic rate the most, requiring 100 cals to digest the food. The red bar – 3 meals – comes in second, requiring 66 cals. And, contrary to the popular claim, 5 small meals actually comes in last, requiring the least number of calories to digest the food.

So, paradoxically, eating larger, less frequent meals “speeds up your metabolism” more than “small frequent meals”.

Point: Pick a meal frequency that suits you, at a minimum three meals is ideal, but if you prefer 2, or 4, or 5 meals per day – cool. Do that. The number of meals you eat won’t make a difference, so pick the meal frequency that suits you and your lifestyle best.