Perhaps one of the most enduring weight-loss
tips myths out there is the one that says you should eat 6 small meals a day (usually a meal every 2 hours). In this way, it is claimed, your metabolism will be constantly on – you’ll be burning more energy, and therefore you’ll lose more weight. Makes sense, right? As far as advice goes, it has a certain intuitive “common-sense” appeal that probably accounts for a lot of its popularity. But does meal timing and frequency really matter? How often should you eat for optimal weight-loss?
The Six-Meals Myth
The idea of the “six meals a day” idea is that by constantly fueling your body throughout the day, you keep your metabolism operating and burning more energy throughout the day. I think there was something in there about preventing blood-sugar spikes, as well. Anyway, the basic claim is that six small meals a day will help you lose weight.
So, does it?
As it turns out – not really. There is no clinical evidence that increased meal frequency improves your metabolism in any meaningful way. In fact, there’s even some evidence to suggest the lower meal frequency is associated with improved resting metabolic rate and appetite control, both of which have positive implications for long-term weight control. Of course, then there’s contradictory evidence that says that less-frequent eating leads to more fat cells…
All pretty confusing, right?
What Really Matters
Given the amount of confusing and occasionally outright contradictory information out there about how many meals you should eat, it’s easy to get confused. The overall thing that you need to remember is this:
Meal timing and frequency really don’t matter that much
See? No confusion. Stop worrying about how many meals you’re eating. The absolute, prime, MOST important thing is how many calories you consume.
That’s it. Yes, it really does boil down to simple, boring, “calories in versus calories out”. If you eat less than you burn, you’ll lose weight. If you eat more than you burn, no matter how many meals it’s spread over, you’ll gain weight.
So if you want to lose weight, you can basically eat as many meals as you like – provided that your overall calories are at a deficit (if you’re not sure how many calories you should be eating, check out my Keto Macro Calculator for a rough idea).
Having said all that, there are still some psychological reasons to consider varying your meal frequency…
Eating fewer (large) meals
This is the approach I take – I incorporate intermittent fasting (IF) with low-carb (or carb-cycling) diet to lose weight. What that means is that I eat all my meals in an 8-hour window during the day (known as the 16:8 approach to IF). It generally results in two large meals between 12-8pm, with numerous snacks in between. Does it make me burn more fat than a standard “3 meals a day” approach? Probably not. But it does let me eat big meals that make me feel like I’m not even dieting.
Get to eat big meals – don’t feel like you’re on a diet at all.
Less meal prep to worry about (if you plan/prepare your meals in advance)
Depending on your daily calorie intake, eating fewer meals can result in meals that are TOO big, making you feel bloated.
Can get you into the habit of eating large meals, increasing the chances of binge-eating.
Eating more (smaller) meals
This could be as many meals as you like, spread over the course of a day.
Eating more often may make it easier to avoid unhealthy snacking
Smaller meals may leave you feeling unsatisfied (and therefore more likely to overeat later)
More prep (and washing up) required
Can be harder to keep track of calories
The bottom line
Do what works for you. If you feel satisfied eating six small meals a day, eat six small meals a day (but remember to count calories). If you’d prefer to stick to 3, or 2, or even 1 big meal at the end of the day, they’re all fine. Remember: The most important thing is total calories in versus total calories out (after that, it’s macronutrient breakdown).The most successful diet is one that you can stick to, so if a certain pattern of eating helps you stick to your goals more than another, go with it. Meal timing and frequency have very little impact on overall weight-loss, so don’t sweat it! Eat what you should, whenever makes you happiest – as long as you’re consistently eating less than you’re burning, you’ll lose weight!