Does Meal Frequency Matter

A question I get asked almost weekly, “Coach, do I need to be eating my meals every 2.5-3 hours to see results” or “It has been 4 hours since my last meal, is my metabolism going to stop”. Meal frequency is a topic often discussed in locker rooms and discussion forums alike, so I would like to put an end to all the questions and shed some light on the reality behind increased meal frequency.

First, it is important to differentiate between meal frequency and meal timing. The former referring to the time in between meals (i.e. the “eating every 3 hours” rule), while the latter is referring specifically to the timing of ingesting certain nutrients based on energy demands (eating carbohydrates after a workout to see receive the anabolic effects of insulin). To reiterate, I will be covering meal frequency in this post and plan to crack the code on whether or not there is a scientific backing for this ideology or if it is just another tactic preached by coaches to make program sales.

Out of all the claims made by this approach to dieting, the first that comes to mind is: eating more frequently increases your metabolism! The theory behind this is of course that your body will expend more calories more often to break down food as it is coming through the digestive system more frequently. This increased energy expenditure, or diet-induced thermogenesis was shown in a study involving postprandial thermic effects in dogs (1), however, studies performed on humans failed to show a correlation between the amount of time between meals and a seemingly increased thermogenic effect.

Another claim associated with the one just discussed is one of improved body composition over traditional dieting behaviors. Again, if we look at the literature, we fail to find any evidence supporting this. In a study by Bortz et al., no differences were found while undergoing a 600-calorie deficit diet program with increased meal frequency compared to normal eating behaviors (2).

At this point increased meal frequency seems to be just another fad, right? Well despite the false claims, increased meal frequency does have some practical application in specific populations. For individuals at risk for type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, increased meal frequency has been shown to lower fasting blood glucose and insulin, cholesterol and triglycerides, and generally decrease the risk of developing the two diseases previously stated (3) and (4).

So is meal frequency all that important? I will say that it most definitely has its place, but that place is in a very specific population of individuals and not in one that gives you anxiety about eating every three hours on the dot. As long as you are getting in your meals throughout the day and not stuffing yourself about an hour or two before bed, eat when it is convenient for you!

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