There are a lot of conflicting opinions on how many meals you should eat in a day for maintaining an optimal weight. For years, we were told to eat 5-6 small meals a day for a slimmer waistline and are now hearing the complete opposite. So, which one is correct? Before we jump into the best-case scenario, let’s dive a little bit deeper into the two main components of weight loss: metabolism and blood sugar.
Metabolic rate is the number of calories your body burns within a given time period. According to some experts, eating smaller meals throughout the day increases your body’s ability to burn by preventing the metabolic rate from slowing down. This theory is backed by the thermic effect of food (TEF). TEF, defined as the increase in metabolic rate after ingestion of a meal, has been studied extensively, but its role in body weight regulation is very controversial. (1) Although it makes sense that your body increases metabolism with the ingestion of food, it has been discovered that it really is the total amount of food consumed that determines the amount of energy expended during digestion. After further research was conducted, it was determined that eating 3 meals of 400 calories will cause the same thermic effect as eating 6 meals of 200 calories. Based on this discovery, experts are now leaning towards the fact that eating more frequently does not increase your metabolism and if anything, leads to a higher caloric intake.
Besides metabolism, the other big factor impacting weight is blood sugar levels. When we eat sugar or other carbohydrate-rich foods, our body quickly turns it into glucose/blood sugar for energy. In order to transport that ‘energy’ to our entire body, we produce a hormone called insulin. Think of insulin as a mailman: it picks up blood sugar (mail) and transfers it to the bloodstream (mail truck) and into our cells (mailbox). When we consume too much (or too frequently), our pancreas goes into overdrive to produce enough insulin necessary for all the blood sugar to be stored. When this happens, a message is sent out to the body that there is excess energy available and thus we should stop burning fat so we can store that excess energy (as fat). Our body can only take so much at one time, and anything excess is stored as fat, leading to unwanted weight gain.
To summarize, the theory that eating more frequently throughout the day increases our metabolism does not have enough evidence to prove it true. If anything, it leads to consuming more calories throughout the day. In addition, eating every 1-2 hours actually increases our production of insulin which inevitably prevents our body from fat burning for most of the day. Weight loss happens during a fasting period (during sleep and between meals). Eating too frequently may also lead to digestive discomfort.
The bottom line here: 3 meals every 4-5 hours is ideal for the best results.