How Often Should You Eat: Goodbye “5-6 Small Meals a Day”, Hello…


Anyone else on the 5-6 small meal a day plan feel like a slave to the clock?
Anyone else on the 5-6 small meal a day plan feel like a slave to the clock?

You’ve no doubt heard it before; to maximize your fat burning potential and keep your metabolism sky-high, you should be consuming 5-6 small meals a day, no questions asked. In theory this makes sense; your body is constantly working to process and digest your meals, thereby actively burning calories and not letting things slip into “sleep” mode during the day. Unfortunately, as you’ll realize, just because something works great on paper, doesn’t mean it actually does in reality.

For those of you wondering how often you should eat, you’re in luck.  Today, we’re tackling the oft-cited recommendation of 5-6 small meals a day and hopefully getting you an answer, once and for all, about how often you should eat to maximize your potential.

The 5-6 small meals a day tid bit has been thrown around for a while now. You may have heard it so often, you started accepting it by default. I too was on the 5-6-small-meal-a-day-train and accepted this nugget of advice as the word of God. As such, I adopted the 5-6 small meal recommendation and made it almost six months. For the most part I did a pretty good job sticking to schedule, but I soon realized what so many others do after a while of eating 5-6 small meals a day; finding the time to not only make, but EAT 5-6 small meals a day is hard. Really hard.

Of course, the response to this is, “Prepare all your foods for the week on Sunday, making enough so all you have to do is reheat and serve when needed.”

I don’t know about you, but I grew to resent this advice. First off, it’s not that easy to just prepare 42 servings in one day, unless of course you want to trade one of your precious days off to become a slave to your kitchen – or you’ve got a team of sous chefs behind you. Anyone have a team of sous chefs? No, your kids don’t count.

Eating should feel like meal time...not feeding time.
Eating should feel like meal time…not feeding time.

Not only that, finding the time and/or appetite to scarf down 5-6 small meals a day can be a bit of a challenge.  By giving yourself such a rigid eating schedule, these 5-6 small meals a day stop feeling like meals.  Soon enough, these regularly scheduled meals begin to feel like feeding times.  Feeding times are for farm animals – you’re not a farm animal.  You’re a human being – you should eat when you’re hungry and not allow a clock or schedule to dictate your meal frequency. 

If you’re like me, you’ll surely start to question how often you should eat after being on an intense 5-6 small meal a day diet plan.  Did I really feel tighter or more toned?  Was I burning through excess fat due to my heightened metabolism?  Was I putting on muscle faster?  For me, the answer to all of the above was a resounding no.  All I did was stress myself out when I missed a regularly scheduled feeding time, and obsess about how I’d make it up later in the day. 

How Often Should You Eat?

If 5-6 small meals a day works for you, I’m not going to tell you not to eat that way.  I’m simply here to tell you there are other ways to eat, and suggest 5-6 small meals a day isn’t the be all end all when it comes to how often you should eat. 

I was once told something that goes like this: Eat breakfast like a king.  Lunch like a prince.  Dinner like a pauper.  Break that long fast with a hearty, complex carb-rich breakfast.  Shoot for something a little less heavy, but still substantial at lunch, before making dinner something light and easy before you hit the hay.  Again, I don’t think you need to follow this to a T, nor exclude any additional meals throughout the day, but overall, I think this is a pretty solid approach.

Above all else, I think how often you eat should be dictated by your hunger – unless of course you’re overeating, at which point a little self-control and willpower need to come into play.  Aim to make your biggest meal breakfast.  Have healthy snacks available throughout the day, but don’t feel compelled to eat them because the clock is indicating it’s a certain hour.  Try to limit heavy, greasy, and carb heavy meals right before bed.  This may seem like common sense, but it’s surprising how many people completely skip breakfast, have a light lunch, then consume 70% of their daily calories an hour or two before bed.  This is a recipe for disaster and a great way to make sure that excess fat you’re trying to lose sticks around for a good long while.

A Growing Body of Evidence

While I don’t put a ton of stock into any individual study, there is a bit of growing evidence suggesting 5-6 small meals a day has no real effect on weight loss.  A study by the American Society for Clinical Nutrition showed no ill-effects of subjects eating three meals a day[1].  Further, the biggest weight loss came when subjects were eating ~2,000 calories in just a single meal a day (not that I’d recommend this).  This speaks to the point that your metabolism isn’t going to suddenly shut down if food isn’t coming in every two to three hours.  Additionally, another study conducted by the British Journal of Nutrition found meal frequency had zero effect on metabolic rate and/or weight-loss [2].

As always, don’t look to any one study as the smoking gun, but certainly consider the growing body of evidence coming out and the picture it’s painting.  Despite the number of people out there still claiming 5-6 small meals a day is the best way to lose weight, the evidence against their claims is growing.  What should you make of all this?  If it’s not clear already, let me be a little more specific.  Instead of wondering how often you should eat, you really need to be asking how many calories you should eat.  The number of calories, and not meal frequency, is the primary determining factor in your weight loss and/or gain. 

Calories per Day

Rather than spend the time and energy planning 6 meals a day, take the 2 minutes necessary to determine roughly how many calories you need each day.  I personally follow this guideline:

To maintain current weight, women should consume 10-11 calories per pound of bodyweight and men should consume 12-13 calories per pound of bodyweight.

This isn’t an exact science and there are of course variations, but this general ballpark has served me very well.  When I’m trying to bulk and add more muscle, I’ll bump this up to 14-15 calories per pound.  When I’m looking to cut a bit of weight, I’ll scale back to 10-11 calories per pound.  It’s simple, effective, and a relatively painless way to eat. 

One other change I’ve adopted is the intermittent fasting lifestyle.  Intermittent fasting involves intervals of fast, spread over the course of a week.  These intervals range from 18-24 hours, and result in lower total caloric intake over the course of weeks, months, and years.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, numerous studies have indicated intermittent fasting is an extremely healthy and effective way to manage your weight AND your long-term health.  Intermittent fasting has been associated with decreased rates of heart disease, cancer, and other life-threatening illness, while positively impacting life expectancy.  Do a little research of your own and you may find the intermittent fasting lifestyle is just what you’ve been looking for. 

To Recap…

  • Eating 5-6 small meals a day is no more weight loss effects than eating 3 small meals a day
  • Make breakfast your largest and heartiest meal of the day.
  • Eat (sensibly) when you’re hungry, not when the clock says you should.
  • Calories per day, not meal frequency is the factor you should be paying attention to most.
  • Intermittent fasting is a worthy approach all people, regardless of weight loss or fitness goals, should consider.

 

[1]: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/85/4/981.abstract

[2]: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-06-06/health/sc-health-0606-nibbling-20120606_1_meals-metabolism-studies-show

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2 thoughts on “How Often Should You Eat: Goodbye “5-6 Small Meals a Day”, Hello…”

  1. I’m a bit confused on your “calories to maintain weight” estimate. Everything I’ve ever read says a woman of my weight (140) has a BMR around 1,400 calories…and that’s just to run my bodily functions and doesn’t factor in calories needed for sprints, heavy lifting, etc. I’m trying to lean out about 10-15 more lbs and have calculated that I should be able to do this at around 1,400 calories or so a day, as I probably use about 1,900 with my daily workouts and activities. So how exactly would eating 1,400 calories maintain my weight and not cause me to be dropping body fat due to consuming about 500 calories or so less a day than I’m using? Please clarify how it could be possible for a very physically active woman such as myself to have to eat less than 1,400 calories in order to lose fat, because I guess I’m just not understanding that estimate. Thanks in advance!

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