'Is Eating 5 or 6 Small Meals a Day Better For Fat Loss Compared to 3 Meals?'

A common recommendation in the fitness industry is to have 5 or 6 small meals a day, especially if a person wants to lose weight (fat). This principle has been around for decades and has always been accepted as fact.

However, in the last few years this theory has been brought into question and the results have been surprising to say the least!

Where did the principle of
more frequent meals come from?

6 Small Meals a Day

It is difficult to know exactly where the principle of having 5 or 6 small meals a day came from. However, it is possible that it originated from bodybuilders and/ or athletes.

These two groups need to consume large amounts of calories in order to build and/ or maintain their muscle mass, or fuel their bodies for large volumes of exercise.

Therefore, it was much easier to break up their daily calorie intake into smaller, more manageable meals as opposed to 3 excessively large meals.

Furthermore, when bodybuilders would diet for competitions the theory was that more frequent meals would keep their metabolism elevated, keep their hunger at bay, and would prevent muscle breakdown.

Since bodybuilders are able to achieve extreme levels of leanness, many of their nutritional principles have been transferred to the fitness industry and used to help 'everyday people' achieve similar fat-burning and weight-loss results.

Furthermore, when people in the fitness industry are approached by people wanting to lose weight they often find that these often overweight people consume very few meals during the day. It is not unusual for them to say, 'I don't know why I'm overweight I only have 1 or 2 meals a day!' Therefore, it is theorised that their body is in 'Starvation Mode' throughout the rest of the day when they're not eating.

Small, Frequent Meals

Also, when you consider the eating habits of Sumo wrestlers, who generally only eat once a day the weight gain caused by fewer meals seems obvious. However, in saying that, Sumo wrestlers will consume around 10,000 calories (42,000kJ) in that one meal!

There is a research study demonstrating the apparent metabolism-boosting effects of increasing meal frequency from one meal a day to three meals a day.1 The study demonstrated that subjects in the group who only consumed one meal a day had elevated fasting blood sugar levels and impaired glucose tolerance (associated with a delayed insulin response) compared to the group who had 3 meals a day. Higher levels of fasting blood sugar levels and impaired glucose tolerance are associated with insulin resistance, which is a symptom of type 2 diabetes!

However, these results can be explained by the larger meal size consumed in the evening resulting in higher morning blood glucose levels. Therefore, it is difficult to make a conclusion from this study that fewer meals have a negative impact on metabolic processes in the body.

What are the claimed benefits
of having 5 or 6 small meals a day?

Some of the claimed benefits of having 5 or 6 small meals a day include:
  • Speeds up your metabolism (and therefore accelerates weight loss)
  • Helps maintain an anabolic environment in the body (and prevents muscle loss)
  • Reduces feelings of hunger
  • Provides a sustained energy release
  • Reduces fat storage
  • Increases fat mobilisation

  • Speeds up your metabolism (and therefore accelerates weight loss)

    It is proposed that having 5 or 6 small meals a day will help to speed up your metabolism and therefore accelerate weight loss.

    The metabolism-boosting effects are expected to result from the increased energy expended through the process of digesting food (thermic effect of eating, TEE) and from the belief that the metabolism won't slow down due to a drop in blood sugar levels between meals.

    However, it appears that the same amount of energy is expended through the process of digestion for a certain amount of food no matter whether it is consumed as 3 meals or 6 meals!2

    Plus, it appears that there is no metabolism-boosting effects from an increased meal frequency.2,3 And there's no additional fat-burning effects.4

    In actual fact, research has shown that resting metabolic rate is greater in subjects who consumed 3 meals a day compared to those who consumed 6 meals!5

    Helps maintain an anabolic environment in the body
    (and prevents muscle loss)

    Protein Boosts Metabolism It is thought that by consuming small, regular meals throughout the day protein synthesis (tissue construction) will be encouraged and muscle loss will be prevented.

    However, it appears that regular protein feedings result in body tissues becoming 'de-sensitised' to the protein and therefore less responsive in promoting protein synthesis.6

    Less regular meals (i.e. 3 meals a day) cause a drop in the amino acid levels in the bloodstream. This results in the body tissues becoming more sensitive to amino acids again, resulting in greater protein synthesis.

    Also, research has shown that consuming 'complete meals' (meals that contain a combination of all 3 macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein, and fat), keep supplying amino acids to the body tissues after 5 hours or even longer!7,8

    Therefore, small, regular means are not required in order to prevent muscle breakdown, which is thought to occur if a meal isn't consumed every 2-3 hours throughout the day.

    Reduces feelings of hunger

    It is theorised that by having smaller, more frequent meals feelings of hunger would be reduced since the body is constantly being supplied with nutrients. Anecdotally this makes sense. We've all experienced what it is like if we have a small meal for lunch and no mid-afternoon meal/ snack. By the time dinner comes around we are ravenous and tend to over-eat.

    The research however, suggests otherwise. One study in particular found that increasing meal frequency from 3 meals to 6 meals actually increased hunger and the desire to eat! It may be possible that the act of eating itself stimulates the hunger mechanism in the body.4

    Another study found that appetite control was better in the group of subjects who consumed 3 meals a day compared to those who consumed 6 meals!5

    If you consider that someone following a reduced calorie diet, say 1,200 calories a day, will have 200 calories per meal if they have 6 meals a day. This is a very small amount of food and it is highly likely that the person will remain hungry throughout the day because they are never fully satiated (satisfied) after a meal!

    Another study found that a higher protein intake, not increased meal frequency, was better for helping to control hunger levels.9

    Provides a sustained energy release

    By consuming smaller meals regularly throughout the day, blood glucose levels remain stable, which means energy levels can be more consistent as well.10

    Reduces fat storage

    Stable blood sugar levels means that insulin levels are likely to remain low too. By keeping insulin low the body is less likely to store body fat so from that perspective more frequent meals can be beneficial.

    Increases fat mobilisation

    Low insulin levels also mean that the body is more likely to mobilise and utilise fat from the fat stores more effectively. This means that weight loss may be improved through this mechanism. Unfortunately though, research at this stage has not found this to be the case.4,11

    Overall, if someone wants to lose weight it doesn't appear that there are any major benefits in increasing their meal frequency from 3 meals a day to 5 or 6 meals. However, that certain doesn't mean that they shouldn't have smaller, more frequent meals if they want to.

    There are several points that need to be considered when determining the most suitable number of meals for you.

    Lifestyle considerations

    Meal Planning and Preparation Firstly, you need to consider whether or not consuming 5 or 6 meals a day suits you and your lifestyle. Are you willing to prepare all of your meals every day? Do you have the time during the day to consume all the meals? Are you willing to accept the fact that perhaps sometimes after eating you may still feel hungry because the meals are small?

    If you have no problem preparing the meals, can easily find the time to consume your meals during the day, and accept that sometimes you may still feel hungry after eating, then it is probably a good idea to have smaller, more frequent meals each day.

    Furthermore, if you perform a large volume of exercise, exercise frequently, and/ or have very intense exercise sessions, then it is probably best for you to increase your meal frequency in order to provide your body with all its necessary calorie/ energy requirements.

    If, on the other hand, you enjoy sitting down with your family at night-time and having a large, hearty, home-cooked meal together, then you're probably best to keep your meal frequency closer to the 3 or 4 meals a day rather than 5 or 6. This will help to control your overall energy/ calorie intake.

    Metabolic considerations

    If you currently only have 1 or 2 meals a day it is probably not a good idea to suddenly increase your meal frequency to 5 or 6 meals a day. Perhaps just increase your meal frequency to 3 meals instead.

    Then, if you're involved in a regular exercise routine and notice over a period of weeks or months that your appetite is increasing and you start feeling hungry in between meals (as a result of your metabolism increasing), then you may want to increase your meal frequency to 4 meals a day instead of 3.

    After a few more weeks of regular exercise you may notice that your appetite continues to increase. This may then require you to increase your meal frequency again; this time to 5 meals a day.

    Of course, the increase in meal frequency should correspond with a slight decrease in meal portion sizes and should also be a graduated process over weeks or months.

    Therefore, if your primary goal is to lose weight then it really doesn't matter whether you choose to have 3, 4, 5 or even 6 meals a day. It is up to you.

    However, what is important is that you follow the standard nutritional recommendations regarding weight loss.

    Some of these principles are:
  • Control your overall energy (calorie/ kilojoule) intake.
  • Ensure all of your meals are 'complete meals' (contain a portion of carbohydrate, protein, and fat).
  • Increase the portion of protein in each of your meals.
  • Ensure you consume plenty of high-fibre foods every day (fruits and vegetables are your best options).
  • Control your intake of fats, sugars, and high-density carbohydrate sources.
  • By using these principles, no matter how many meals a day you have, you are bound to get fantastic results! Go for it!

    If you would like to discover all the principles you need to lose all the weight you want, please read, Look Good, Feel Great!

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