By Neil Anderson
It is a piece of “gym lore” that never made any sense. Eating six times per day is supposed to make you lose weight faster. Have you ever heard this advice? Did it make any sense when you heard it? It never made sense to me either. Unfortunately, it has permeated the health and fitness establishment to the point that it has become law in many expert’s minds.
Although bodybuilders had been doing this for decades, I think Bill Phillips was the first to proliferate this advice (6 per day) in his bestselling book, “Body for Life.” “Body for Life” sold over 4 million copies and was translated into 20 different languages. Since then, it has become such common advice to eat 6 meals per day for weight loss that trainers, RD’s, M.D’s and PH.D’s have even begun bandwagoning this advice almost daily without ever stopping to investigate its origins in junk science.
The Junk Science behind eating six meals per day has to do with calories stored and calories burned. Eating small meals throughout the day is supposed to limit the amount of calories you store and be responsible for stoking the metabolism. It is also thought to be ideal for controlling cravings and regulating blood sugar. Unfortunately, these two thoughts are either grossly or blatantly incorrect interpretations of the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).
The TEF is a gauge of what effect eating a meal has on your metabolism. When you eat a meal it takes a certain amount of calories to digest that meal. The thought is that the more often you eat meals the more calories you burn more often and therefore the more weight you lose as the result.
The problem is it doesn’t work this way because you could make the same argument for eating 3 (or less) small meals per day. See, the TEF is directly proportional to the calories contained in the meal you just ate. Therefore if you eat 1000 calories in one meal you would only use as many calories as it would take to burn off 2 meals of 500 calories each. So, while eating smaller meals more often throughout the day will keep the metabolism smoldering, it is also true that eating larger meals less often will keep the metabolism fully stoked! This is where the Junk Science occurs. Some pseudo scientists would have you believe that there must be more benefit in storing fewer calories (because you only took in a few) while burning calories more often (because it takes calories to burn what you just ate). This would be right if it was true, but it is not. In the end it all comes out the same. It is just that saying, “taking in fewer calories more often burns fewer calories more often,” sounds better than, “taking in more calories less often burns more calories less often.” This is where “science” becomes salesmanship.
This is not to say that eating 6 small meals per day will not help you lose weight. It will if you do it right. Therein lies the secret. The secret is whether you are eating more often or not, you are still eating the same amount. Less is less. This is true whether you eat less more often or less often. Make sense?
In practicum, the advice of eating 6 meals per day is probably singlehandedly responsible for making more people who try it heavier and less healthy, instead of the other way around. This is because most people who try to apply this advice are doing it all wrong. To follow this plan effectively you should eat 6 small meals per day AND your caloric intake should not exceed what is recommended for weight loss. Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of thinking 6 meals per day will stoke their metabolism enough that they can cheat from time to time and still make progress. Those who make this mistake not only fail at weight loss…many times they gain a significant amount of weight instead.
Seeing folks gain significant amounts of weight year after year, is where I have taken umbrage with this plan for weight loss. In my experience, it just doesn’t work for the average person. It never made sense to ask someone who is bad at putting together 3 meals per day (as is evident from their apparent ill health and weight) to take their poor food decision making skills and poor judgment when it comes to meals and increase how often they have to make decisions and use good judgment concerning food and meals. This is just stupid. It is also rife with potential pitfalls. Am I the only one who could see this?
It seems science now agrees with me. Recently the British Journal Nutrition, in press; published online November 30, 2009 reported, “Increased Meal Frequency Does Not Promote Weight Loss.” It cited a study done at the University of Ottawa, led by Erick Doucet. The study had people consume a reduced-calorie diet, with meals served three or six times per day, for eight weeks (calorie intake was the same). Both groups lost about 5% of bodyweight, but the frequency of meals had no effect on weight loss.
There are others, too. Here are some brief descriptions. You may want to Google them (simply copy and paste the titles to your browser):
Effects of meal frequency on energy utilization in rats.
Hill JO, Anderson JC, Lin D, Yakubu F. Department of Pediatrics, Vanderbilt University
“The effects of differences in meal frequency on body weight, body composition, and energy expenditure were studied in mildly food-restricted male rats. Two groups were fed approximately 80% of usual food intake (as periodically determined in a group of ad libitum fed controls) for 131 days. One group received all of its food in 2 meals/day and the other received all of its food in 10-12 meals/day. The two groups did not differ in food intake, body weight, body composition, food efficiency (carcass energy gain per amount of food eaten), or energy expenditure at any time during the study. Both food-restricted groups had a lower food intake, body weight gain, and energy expenditure than a group of ad libitum-fed controls. In conclusion, these results suggest that amount of food eaten, but not the pattern with which it is ingested, has a major influence on energy balance during mild food restriction.“
Meal frequency and energy balance.
Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70.
“More importantly, studies using whole-body calorimetry and doubly-labelled water to assess total 24 h energy expenditure find no difference between nibbling and gorging. Finally, with the exception of a single study, there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency. We conclude that any effects of meal pattern on the regulation of body weight are likely to be mediated through effects on the food intake side of the energy balance equation.”
Thermogenesis in humans after varying meal time frequency
Wolfram G, Kirchgessner M, Müller HL, Hollomey S.
To a group of 8 healthy persons a slightly hypocaloric diet with protein (13% of energy), carbohydrates (46% of energy) and fat (41% of energy) was given as one meal or as five meals in a change-over trial. Each person was 2 weeks on each regimen. Under the conditions of slight undernutrition and neutral temperature the balances of nitrogen, carbon and energy were assessed in 7-day collection periods, and according to 48-hour measurements of gaseous exchange (carbon-nitrogen balance method) by the procedures of indirect calorimetry. Changes of body weight were statistically not significant. At isocaloric supply of metabolizable energy with exactly the same foods in different meal frequencies no differences were found in the retention of carbon and energy. Urinary nitrogen excretion was slightly greater with a single daily meal, indicating influences on protein metabolism. The protein-derived energy was compensated by a decrease in the fat oxidation. The heat production calculated by indirect calorimetry was not significantly different with either meal frequency. Water, sodium and potassium balances were not different. The plasma concentrations of cholesterol and uric acid were not influenced by meal frequency, glucose and triglycerides showed typical behaviour depending on the time interval to the last meal. The results demonstrate that the meal frequency did not influence the energy balance.
There are many more, but I think you get the point. In the end it becomes plain to see that eating 6x per day as suggested by many so-called “experts” lacks evidence. On top of that, it lacks common sense.
Those who follow this advice might ask, “What would it hurt to eat 6x/day, if I’m doing it right?” The answer is – NOTHING. I don’t think it would hurt a thing if you truly were doing it perfectly. But, let me ask you back. What would it hurt (in light of the evidence given) to do it perfectly right 3x per day? How about these questions; Does eating 6x per day and measuring portions and weighing your foods (like you should be doing) really fit into you and your family's lifestyle? Does eating this way help or hurt people who may already be obsessive about food? Which plan has more exposure to potential failure? Is eating 6x per day a realistic or long term lifestyle that you want to follow? Wouldn’t it be better to follow a plan that is going to help you in the long run? I hope you’ll take all of these questions into account when choosing whether to follow this advice or not.
Dieting is hard enough. Complicating it by multiples doesn’t seem smart. I have witnessed many, many more people fail at adding meals than doing the opposite. In fact, when I designed my “Burst Cycle” diet I did it in response to this fad of overcomplicating food intake. It is infinitely more successful. I believe it is because it is infinitely simpler. For me: Simpler is more effective. Simpler is longer term. Simpler is more doable.
Simpler is better. Let’s go back to simple. When you choose a meal plan or diet to help you lose weight, simply download one of the meal plans or diets on this site. They are very, very simple. Here is how it works…if it is not on the plan, DO NOT EAT IT! Follow it to the letter.
“But, Neil!” You might exclaim. “You said to do a plan that is long term…How can following your plan be long term?”
Look at the foods. Look at the portion size. Look at the nutritional information. Look at how often I am asking you to eat these foods. Do you see a pattern? That is right. You will find that the foods I am suggesting you eat and the plan I suggest you follow IS a long term eating plan. It is good for you and your family. If you follow it, you will learn how to eat properly and feed your family in a very healthy, long term way. You will also gain valuable experience eating this way, so that when you do try it on your own, you will be less likely to fail, because you have gained new skills and abilities when it comes to food and nutrition.
Just because something is more complicated looking doesn’t qualify it as better. Just because a program asks more of you it doesn’t mean it is more effective.
And now science has shown that, just because some smart guy who sold 4 million books published in 20 different languages told you to eat 6 meals per day, and almost every health professional from your R.D. to your M.D. jumped on the “bandwagon,” you shouldn’t feel compelled to jump too.