Have you wondered about this too?
People often ask me some variation of “My trainer says I should eat 6 small meals per day. What do you think of that?”
Unfortunately, like most nutrition questions that start with “my trainer says”, my thought is that they clearly get all of their nutrition information straight from 1992 fitness magazines and should stop talking. But I digress…
The claim usually goes that by eating frequently, you are feeding your metabolism. And “long gaps” between eating (aka eating normally) means that your metabolism becomes suppressed.
Every good lie has some truth to it… in this case, “some” feels like an exaggeration, but it is true that your metabolism responds to eating. But here’s what ACTUALLY happens…
Your body burns calories by digesting and assimilating food. If it’s 8am and you’re sitting on the couch with an empty stomach, your body is burning fewer calories at rest than if you had just finished breakfast.
Ultimately, though, this is meaningless. Here’s why:
1) Burning more calories because of eating doesn’t mean you’re burning any more calories per day from fat. For example: if you go from eating 3 meals per day that average 700 calories each to eating 6 meals per day that average 1,000 calories each, you will definitely be burning more calories from digesting per day. But you also nearly tripled your calorie intake, so who cares? Yeah, I know, you’re not going to be eating *bigger* meals. The point is that burning more calories per day doesn’t necessarily translate to weight loss.
2) On the flip side, not burning calories from digestion doesn’t mean that your metabolism has “shut down”. You burn more calories standing than you do sitting, but every time you sit down, you probably don’t worry about your metabolism slowing down. It’s perfectly normal to burn more calories per hour at certain times of the day compared to other times of the day. Burning fewer calories at a given time because you’re not currently digesting food will have no significant impact on your weight management efforts.
3) It doesn’t matter how frequently you eat! You can influence how many calories per day you burn from digestion with your nutrition habits, but meal frequency isn’t a way to do that. For example, if you normally eat 2,000 calories per day and you continue to eat 2,000 calories per day but take in more fruits, veggies, and protein percentage wise, you will burn more calories from digesting those foods. But taking in those 2,000 calories from 3 meals or dividing them over 6 meals will have no impact. The “metabolism boost” from eating remains the same.
I could keep going, but hopefully, it’s clear now that there is no validity to the argument that more frequent meals will “speed up your metabolism”.
Actually, one of the most important things I look at when working with clients is making sure they’re eating enough at their meals so they don’t need to eat so frequently. Typically, this means 3-4 meals per day.