Big Meals vs. Small Snacks: What’s Best for You?

If you’ve read a diet book, seen a nutritionist, or hired a personal trainer, you’ve probably been told that in order to lose weight or gain muscle you need to eat more often. Maybe you were told, “eat five to six small meals per day” or that eating big meals was no good for your body. The range from big meals harming digestion, the nutrients (like protein) going to waste, and not eating often slowing your metabolism.

This style of eating, commonly referred to as the frequent feeding model, is popular with everyone from dietitians to bodybuilders and has been repeated so often for so long that it’s generally taken as fact.

But it’s not.

The reputed benefits of eating frequent small meals as superior to fewer meals has not been scientifically validated, although there have been studies that have tried. It’s only natural to think:

I know I’ve heard many times that you should “graze” throughout the day, and that eating frequently burns more calories, fires up your metabolism, or provides frequent protein to prevent your body from dipping into a catabolic or muscle wasting state.

And you have. But reality isn’t always on par with the promise being sold. In theory, the idea is fine: since eating increases your metabolic rate, the more often you eat, the more your metabolic rate will be elevated.

But when you dig deep into the research, only part of the above theory is true. So in order to figure out how often you should be eating, here’s what you need to know to figure out the best number of meals you should be enjoying each day.

Does Eating Often Burn More Calories?

Every time you put food in your mouth, you burn calories. When you eat, your inner machinery needs to work hard to break down the food you eat; the breakdown and conversion of food into energy requires some energy itself, and some is used to help you walk, think, breathe, build muscle, lose fat, and even sleep. Some.

And the rest? Well, the leftovers require energy to be transported as adipose tissue—the bad stuff that gives you love handles—or broken down and passed through your digestive tract.

Going a bit farther, we know that the amount of energy you burn depends on the food you eat. This is known as the thermic effect of food. Of all the foods you eat, protein is the most metabolically expensive—it costs more energy to breakdown, digest, and put to use than either carbohydrates or fat. Up to 30 percent of the calories you eat from protein are burned during the digestion and processing of those foods.

That’s one of the main reasons why diets with protein are so great; the more protein you eat, the more calories you burn. Carbohydrates are less metabolically active (about 6 to 8 percent burned), and fats are the least metabolically active (about 4 percent burned) despite being the highest in calories and great for your testosterone levels.

Now, here’s where all the confusion is creating and why everyone believes the must eat throughout the day. (Reminder: I’m not saying you should or should not eat every few hours, I’m explaining why you can choose your meal frequency.) It was posited that if eating requires energy, then eating more frequently would require energy more frequently—and that a net effect would be to require more energy. That’s how the multiple meals per day movement started. Makes sense from a logical perspective, but it’s completely based on pseudoscience and assumptions.

The reality is that your body doesn’t care about how many meals you eat. You can choose how often you want to eat every day.

The thermic effect of food is directly proportional to caloric intake and the foods you eat, and if caloric intake and food choice is the same at the end of the day, there will be no metabolic difference between eating six meals or three.

This fact is so blatantly true that Canadian researchers wrote a published study that was literally titled: “Increased Meal Frequency Does Not Promote Greater Weight Loss Who Were Prescribed an 8-week Equi-Energetic Energy-Restricted Diet.” In fact, as long as the total calories are the same, you can eat ten meals or one meal and you’ll still get the same metabolic effect.

French researchers added to that research and found that there is “no evidence of improved weight loss” by eating more frequently. They even went a step farther to show that in terms of the number of calories you burn per day, it does not matter if you graze or gorge—assuming that you’re eating the number of calories you need to lose weight.

So if you’re told to eat 2,000 calories per day, it doesn’t matter if it’s separated into five 400-calorie meals or a few smaller feasts. However, the composition of those meals does matter. Remember, proteins, carbs and fats are all metabolized differently, so the combination of these nutrients are still important, but how often you consume those foods might not matter as much as you thought.

The Real “You” Diet

The best approach to your diet is the one that is sustainable for you and fits your lifestyle. With regard to energy balance and thermic effect of food, you can really eat as many meals—or as few—as you want. Your body primarily functions based on how much you eat, the composition of what you eat, and the sources of food you select. Yes, there are strategies that you should follow—such as eating more carbs late at night. But whether you split those carbs into one big meal or three nightly snacks is your choice.

There are reasons why eating less frequently could be a better choice for you and your body. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that eating more frequently is less beneficial from the perspective of satiety, or feeling full. Which means that the more often you eat, the more likely you are to be hungry—leading to higher caloric intake and eventual weight gain. In other words, whether you realize it or not, when you eat more often, you’re more likely to eat more food. When you eat less frequently, you can eat larger meals and feel more satisfied, and you’re less likely to take in more calories.

That’s why when I talk to people about creating diets, I take a more realistic approach to your eating habits. If eating more frequently works best for you and your schedule, then you should cater to your preferences. But if you prefer fewer, larger meals, then you shouldn’t feel that you couldn’t change your body with that approach.

The real diet truth? Worry more about what you’re eating as opposed to when or how often. Many thoughts on the “need” for breakfast or problems with eating late at night at just perpetuated myths that won’t have a real impact on how you look and feel. And the more you remove the perceived complications of “dieting” the more you’ll feel empowered and in control that you can eat in a way that isn’t a burden and will increase your belief that you can achieve your fitness goals.

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