With all the conflicting articles on the internet about eating smaller meals, keeping your metabolism up all day, and eating at certain times of day, it gets harder and harder to keep track of what is fact and what is fiction. We're here to answer your question: are small, frequent meals really best for reaching fitness goals?
What you need to know:
- All food has a ‘thermic effect’, or the caloric cost of digesting and processing that food.
- Many nutrition ‘experts’ have stated that regular, small meals improve metabolism through ‘stoking the metabolic furnace’ as a result of the thermic effect of food.
- These experts also say that eating frequently will reduce hunger and blood sugar levels, which has been proven to be untrue.
- This idea, although logical, has been challenged when scientists found that there is no difference in the thermic effect of 6 small meals or 3 big meals.
- The best diet is the diet that fits your lifestyle, whether it’s 6 small meals or 3 big ones.
You’ve heard it before…
“To reach your fitness goals and lose weight, you need to keep your metabolism burning all day. Make sure you eat small, frequent meals to keep your metabolic furnace going. This will keep you from being hungry and keeps your blood sugar in control.”
Where does this come from? Well, you may have heard the story of our hunter-gatherer ancestors never knowing when the next meal would come from, so our highly-intelligent bodies would slow our metabolism down to keep as much fuel as possible after about two hours. The unused fuel would be stored as body fat to spare us during this time of perceived starvation.
When we finally get a meal, our hormones go wild as our blood sugar levels shoot through the roof, only to drop afterward, with our hunger following closely behind.
According to this way of thinking, to avoid starvation mode, we must eat consistently throughout the day to keep our metabolism burning fast and our blood sugar stable.
But, the problem with this is twofold:
First - Just because something makes sense, doesn’t mean it’s right. Logically, we shouldn’t be able to fly around in metal capsules with wings. But, we do.
Second - This is another case of trying to fit yourself into someone else’s idea of ‘perfect.’ Many people (myself included) work hard throughout the day and are often spending the majority of their day in meetings or with clients, so stopping every two hours isn’t exactly realistic. Does that mean they can’t lose weight? Absolutely not!
Balancing what’s best, and what’s realistic
What matters most is that, whatever you decide to do, you’re able to commit to.
I’d rather have my clients at Ladder commit to and follow through on a ‘good enough’ nutrition plan than eat perfectly one day per week. Long story short, implementation matters. Take what you’re about to learn and make it fit your lifestyle.
What the research says
On speeding up metabolism:
Each macronutrient (protein, fat, carbohydrates) requires a different amount of energy to be broken down and digested. This is called the ‘Thermic Effect of Food.’ As a rule of thumb, the typical mixed meal requires about 10% of the calories consumed to digest it. For example, a 200 calorie meal requires 20 calories to digest.
In a 15 study meta-analysis, researchers noticed no significant difference in meal frequency and weight loss or body composition. But how could that be?! People who ate more must have had faster metabolisms… right? 
Not necessarily! In his blog ‘Are Frequent Meals Beneficial for Body Composition’ Brad Schoenfeld, PhD (One of the scientists who performed the Meta-Analysis) creates this helpful table: 
Image via: Brad Schoenfeld, PhD
kCal = Calories
TEF = Thermic Effect of Food
As you can see, the thermic effect of food is exactly the same whether spaced throughout the day or broken into smaller meals. Meaning, your body will have to do exactly the same amount of work regardless of how often you feed it.
More meals means less hunger, though… Right?
In a 2013 study for The Obesity Society, scientists tested the effect that meal frequency had on perceived hunger. Logically, it’s safe to assume that eating more often must mean feeling more full throughout the day.
Well, that’s the problem with logic. Just because something sounds like it makes sense, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
When testing three meals per day vs six meals per day, researchers found that smaller, more consistent meals actually INCREASED feelings of hunger. 
What real life tells us about maintaining fitness goals
While there is no perfect diet, it’s tough to deny that many people have found success with small, frequent meals. Though data may tell us that it isn’t the meal frequency that’s causing the weight loss, there is something happening on a physiological level that has improved their body composition.
My observation is this: generally, when someone increases their meal frequency, they’re also putting an emphasis on lower calorie, ‘healthier’ foods as well as meal frequency.
So chances are, although they’re eating more often, they’re still eating fewer calories and losing weight as a result.
For this reason, my advice to clients is this:
Don’t shape your lifestyle to fit your nutrition plan, shape your nutrition plan to fit your lifestyle.
If you’re someone who feels better eating smaller meals, go for it. But if you’re someone who couldn’t imagine eating more than two times per day, that’s fine too.
Eat the right quantity of food for you, consistently, and you’ll reach your fitness goals.
But these healthy eating habits alone are not as effective in losing weight as they could be if you combined them with physical exercise. Working with an online personal trainer from Ladder will help you achieve your fitness goals even faster. Ready to get started with a fitness coach?
Schoenfeld, B. Jon, et al. “Effects of Meal Frequency on Weight Loss and Body Composition: a Meta-Analysis.” Nutrition Reviews, vol. 73, no. 2, 2015, pp. 69–82., doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuu017.
Schoenfeld, Brad. “Are Frequent Meals Beneficial For Bod Composition.” » Are Frequent Meals Beneficial for Body Composition, www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/are-frequent-meals-beneficial-for-body-composition/.
Ohkawara, Kazunori, et al. “Effects of Increased Meal Frequency on Fat Oxidation and Perceived Hunger.” Obesity, vol. 21, no. 2, 2013, pp. 336–343., doi:10.1002/oby.20032.