If you’ve been interested in health and fitness for any period of time, you’ve more than likely seen the theory of ‘6 small meals per day’ regurgitated on more than one occasion. If you’re like 95% of people (myself included) you’ve probably bought into it at some point too. Eating small meals every 2 – 3 hours is the optimal way to burn fat, build muscle, and altogether win at life. At least, so we were told.
But who is responsible for this theory? Has it ever been proven by clinical studies on humans? Is it backed by any shred of scientific evidence? Or was it, in fact, a myth created by the fitness industry?
If you’re reading this whilst eating meal #5 of the day from your Tupperware box, you may want to sit up and take notes.
6 small meals per day
At some point in the early 1990s, the theory of ‘6 small meals per day’ was born. If you didn’t eat every two hours, on the button, your metabolism would begin to slow down. Your body would enter a catabolic state and start to eat it’s own muscle stores for fuel. You’d get fat. You’d get weak. Your hair would fall out.
And although none of this actually ever happened, for some reason, people began to believe this theory. It was on the internet, so it must be true – right? As a result, we began ignoring our hunger signals and started eating to the chime of alarm clocks. We carried Tupperware boxes and cooler bags with us wherever we went. Our lives soon revolved around the buying, preparing, and eating of food.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
To this day, the ‘6 small meals’ theory is still treated as gospel by personal trainers, performance coaches, and even many nutritionists. But if you have any kind of social life, hobbies, or work commitments, you’ll know that this eating strategy just isn’t practical.
Thankfully, it’s not necessary either.
There have been numerous studies, often sponsored by the fitness industry, that have attempted to show how eating ‘little and often’ boosts metabolism and is therefore optimal for maintaining a lean physique. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, there has never been any proof in this theory.
Indeed, in the most recent clinical study¹ on meal frequency, a group of obese adults were divided into two groups – one that ate three meals, and one that ate six meals per day, with the total caloric volume remaining consistent. After eight weeks, both groups had lost weight on the calorie restricted diet; but there was no difference between the total weight loss in either.
Meal frequency and muscle building
Small and frequent meals are often recommended for muscle building, in theory to maximise protein synthesis. Yet again, however, it’s a theory that makes little sense. Our bodies are programmed to maintain muscle mass wherever physically possible.
From an evolutionary perspective, lean muscle was essential to our survival. In times where food was scarce, we often went for days without eating a significant source of protein. If the ‘little and often’ theory was correct, we’d have quite literally disintegrated after the first few hours out hunting.
During protein synthesis, protein (from food) is broken down in the digestive system into amino acids, released into the bloodstream, and then used for a number of physiological processes, including growth and repair. Our body can only use between 7 and 8g of amino acids in any given hour², so it slows digestion to make sure the protein we eat doesn’t go to waste.
The amino acids in our digestive system are then slowly released into the blood stream, allowing protein synthesis to continue hours after your last meal. Whilst eating 15g protein in one sitting may mean your requirements for protein begin to increase again after two hours, eating 40g means that you can comfortably go without protein for at least five.
Should I eat little and often?
The above information doesn’t mean that eating six small meals each day is necessarily wrong. If you’ve got the appetite, time, and money, then go for it; at the end of the day, the most important thing is the quality of the food you are actually consuming. Just make sure that you are legitimately hungry, so that when you do eat, your enzyme pool is fully replenished and ready to digest your next meal.
As for me?I simply feel better when I spend less time eating. My days are busy with work, training, and social commitments, and eating ‘little and often’ just gets in the way. I prefer to eat my meals mindfully rather than shovel them down at the desk or on the train, and my digestion starts to act up when I don’t leave enough time between sittings.
Three square meals works perfectly for me. It’s what the majority of the human race have done for centuries, and we’ve done ok so far. That’s not to say that three meals a day is the right approach for you. Experiment with your meal frequency, and see what works best. But please – put away that stopwatch.