Fact or Fiction? Nutrition Fallacies, Part 1: Meal Frequency

by Jordan Syatt July 21, 2011

What is “proper”  nutrition?

Do you know?

Does your mother know?

Does your doctor know?

Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that most people’s knowledge of nutrition is miniscule or nonexistent altogether.

In all fairness it’s not for a lack of effort. Many people go out of their way to ask their doctors, read books, and talk to their personal trainer to figure out the optimal eating strategy. Regardless of the amount of effort put into finding the truth, there are so many false and differing views on what constitutes proper nutrition that it’s no wonder our society is fat and sick.

As much as I would love to sit at my desk writing for hours on end, enjoying my freshly brewed cup of coffee and covering every diet falsity known to mankind…it’s just not in the cards for today. However, what I will do is give you extensive insight into one of the most commonly debated and misunderstood topics in the fitness industry: Meal Frequency.

Meal frequency is a fancy way of saying how often you eat during the day. That’s it. Nothing special about it. Now let’s get to myth busting 101!

When it comes to meal frequency the most common anecdote I hear is something along the lines of:

*insert the most obnoxious voice you can imagine here* “ You absolutely must, and I repeat, MUST eat 6 small meals throughout the day in order to keep your metabolism through the roof!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The other popular belief involves eating 3 large meals throughout the day and is commonly expressed as:

“You must eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper!”

If you haven’t heard both of these anecdotes before then I’m sure you’ve heard at least one of them. If you haven’t heard either of them then you’ve probably been living under a rock. Congratulations…you live under a rock.

So which one is right? Are they both right? Is one better than the other? What’s the deal?

Before I give any definitive answers, let’s take a look at the facts:


There has recently been a large amount of research done on meal frequency and its effect on body composition. For instance in this study scientists documented the differences between subjects who ate equi-caloric diets in either 3 or 1 meals throughout the day. The findings clearly show that there were no significant changes in body composition regardless of the meal frequency.

Additionally, the results of the most comprehensive study ever done on meal frequency were the same, concluding 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,” which is a fancy way of saying that body composition is dictated by the total number of calories eaten as opposed to the meal frequency.

Intermittent Fasting is a great example which disproves the dogma that not eating breakfast will ruin your metabolism. While I won’t delve into excruciating detail describing IF and all of its benefits in this article, the basic premise involves fasting for the morning hours of the day while eating all of your meals in the afternoon and evening. A sample day of intermittent fasting might look like this:

7am-12pm: Drink coffee, water, tea, any zero calorie beverage

12pm-2pm: 1st meal

4pm-6pm: 2nd meal

8pm-10pm: 3rd and final meal

Without prior knowledge one might look at an IF protocol and think “oh my freakin’ goodness that is LITERALLY going to RUIN your metabolism!!!!!!”

Lucky for us, we know that as long as our total calorie intake remains consistent with our goals (a deficit for fat loss and a surplus for mass gain), meal frequency is irrelevant to body composition.

Side note: those looking for the best source of information in regard to Intermittent Fasting should go to Martin Berkhan’s page, here: www.leangains.com

Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)

The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) refers to what your body does in response to feeding. Every time you eat your body creates energy in the form of heat to digest and absorb as many of the nutrients as possible. Additionally, the ‘level’ of heat produced by the body is directly proportional to the amount of energy (calories) included in the meal. Simply put, a meal containing a small amount of calories will produce a small increase in heat energy, while a meal containing a large amount of calories will produce a large increase in heat energy.

To illustrate, below is an outline of 3 different people eating the exact same number of calories throughout the day but in different frequencies:

Person 1) 6 meals of 300 calories each for a total of 1800kcal

Person 2) 4 meals of 450 calories each for a total of 1800kcal

Person 3) 2 meals of 900 calories each for a total of 1800kcal

On average the TEF of a standard diet is about 10% for protein, carbohydrates, and fat (with slight variance). If we take the TEF (.1%) of each individual meal during the day, we get the number of calories burned off due to TEF at each meal:

Person 1) .1 x 300 = 30kcal burned off from TEF

Person 2) .1 x 450 = 45kcal burned off from TEF

Person 3) .1 x 900 = 90kcal burned off from TEF

Now if we multiply the TEF of each meal by the total number of meals consumed, we get the total number of calories burned at the end of the day due to TEF:

Person 1) 30 x 6 = 180kcal

Person 2) 45 x 4 = 180kcal

Person 3) 90 x 2 = 180kcal

As you can see, even though each person consumed a different number of calories at each individual meal, since the total calories consumed remained constant, the TEF was exactly the same regardless of meal frequency.

To put things in perspective, the recommendation to eat 6 small meals per day in order to keep the metabolism running was based off of a misconception of how TEF works. While it’s true eating 6 small meals per day will produce 6 small bursts of energy at each meal (in essence boosting your metabolism), you could eat the same number of calories over 2 large meals and produce a thermic effect of equal value.

The most important thing to remember from this section is: as long as the total calories consumed at the end of the day remain constant, it does not matter how many meals you eat throughout the day.

Meal Frequency Recommendations

Now we can come to a conclusion as to which meal frequency is optimal.

Well…sort of.

It’s impossible to give any definitive answer as to which meal frequency is the best because there is no best meal frequency; a better way to put would be: there is no wrong meal frequency.

Does that make sense? See, every person has different goals, needs, schedules, preferences etc. etc. etc. There’s no way in hell that I would definitively recommend a sedentary overweight type 2 diabetic the same meal frequency as an elite MMA fighter; that would be idiotic.

When it comes down to it, each person needs to decide which meal frequency will work best for him or herself. If your goal is fat loss you might do best on an Intermittent Fasting meal frequency. If you’re trying to gain mass you might do better eating 10 small meals throughout the day. If you’re an elite athlete you might need something completely different altogether in order to optimize performance. The possibilities are endless.

The fact of the matter is: there is no wrong meal frequency. The best thing for you to do is experiment and find what works best for you. Take some time to yourself, look at your schedule and make an eating plan which allows you to enjoy life to the fullest. Whether your goal is fat loss or mass gain, the most important aspect in regard to body composition is calories in vs. calories out. It doesn’t matter if you eat 1 meal per day or 17 meals per day; if you’re eating less than you burn you will lose weight, and if you’re eating more than you burn you will gain weight. Period.

To be honest, life is too short to worry about the optimal meal frequency. Find what works for you and run with it! If eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner work for you…great! If you’d rather only eat lunch and dinner, that’s fine too. Do what makes you happy, because in the end…that’s all that really matters.


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