Meal Frequency Confusion!
Here's a question I recently received:
"Some diet experts say that having six small meals a day is outdated. Many recommend three (or fewer) meals instead. But what if I feel uncomfortably stuffed when trying to cram all my calories into three meals? Is there any harm in continuing to eat smaller, more frequent meals if I'm not gaining fat from it?"
I understand your frustration. This industry seems to constantly be stuck in a never-ending cycle of black and white advice. One minute something is in vogue and the next it's not. I will tell you definitely and without hesitation that eating small frequent meals is NOT outdated and is a fantastic strategy for many people.
Part of the reason you're getting the message to avoid small frequent meals is a newfound appreciation for less-frequent eating. We now have plenty of substantial research telling us that there are many different eating regimes that work and have benefits.
A quick perusal of the last several years of research will reveal that one meal a day (OMAD) style of eating can work great for some. Different time restricted feeding schedules such as the 16/8 approach – which involves fasting for 16 hours a day by avoiding breakfast – can deliver great results.
A more recent study showed skipping dinner may be superior to skipping breakfast. Varied fasting regimes, like the 5-2 plan, where you eat normal during the weekdays and then consume little to no food on the weekends, can be beneficial.
All of these studies have created excitement. New information typically generates a novelty bias for a bit. It's common to overemphasize the new and underappreciate the old, but it doesn't make a whole lot of sense since new things haven't been tested by time. Usually, the tried and true is better than the fresh and new.
I address all of this to hopefully help allay your concerns and clear some confusion. The current consensus in the nutrition research is still that calories matter most. Sure, we now know hormonal influence are working with calories to impact things like hunger, mood, cravings, and energy, but in the end we must attend to the calorie levels of the individual diets we choose.
Calories Are King, But....
There are two things required for sustained fat loss:
- A calorie deficit
- Metabolic hormonal balance
The calories drive the weight loss. The hormones push that weight loss towards fat loss and sustainability. You need both. Quality and quantity are equally important. It's impossible to separate the two!
The question of eating frequency comes down to the individual. We're all different. We're unique in our genetics, psychology, and personal preferences. We should honor that. What all that research above says is, there's more than one way to skin the calorie and hormone cat. Ultimately, it's about finding what works for you.
Try telling the bodybuilding world from 1960 to 2000 that small frequent meals weren't ideal. You'd be laughed at and mocked. The small frequent meal approach works fantastically well, but it's not the only way. Some people do better with different eating frequencies.
My advice? Keep doing exactly what you're doing so long as that regime keeps these things in check: sleep, hunger, mood, energy, cravings (SHMEC), and so long as you're attaining or maintaining your desired body composition. Why would you change?
Your Metabolism is Adaptive
Remember, the metabolism is an adaptive system. You want to keep it flexible and healthy. You can do that by keeping it guessing and changing up your eating frequency at times.
So, you may benefit even more if, from time to time, you experiment with less frequent eating. It's the same for those less frequent eaters. They're far better off deviating occasionally to a more frequent eating pattern.
In the end, you should always return to what works best for you. Remember, research is a tool for averages not individuals. The research can get you in the ballpark, but you'll need to tweak and adjust to get it just right for you.