One of the most heavily discussed topics in the nutrition and fitness industry is how many times per day to eat. You’ve likely heard the concept that eating more often “boosts” your metabolism, but is there actually any truth to this? Turns out, the answer is no. In fact, there is very little if any evidence to support this idea which is exactly why you don’t need 6 meals per day and there are many more important things to focus on.
Should you eat 6 meals a day?
The concept that eating many small meals per day boosts metabolism is an easy one to buy into because, at first glance, it appears to make sense. Because the process of digestion raises your metabolism slightly, one might assume that eating more frequently would help to keep your metabolism elevated throughout the day and, in turn, burn more energy and fat. In theory.
In reality, there is no advantage to eating multiple small meals per day. In fact, evidence shows that it is the total volume of food that you eat during the day that is more important. So, whether you eat chicken breast at one meal or cut it up and eat it across 6 different meals makes absolutely no difference to your metabolism.
You Can’t “Stoke” Your Metabolism
People love talking about their metabolism. This boosts your metabolism. I have a slow metabolism. She has a fast metabolism. But what I find hilarious is that most people have absolutely no idea what their metabolism actually is! Your metabolism is not a thing. It is not a fire in your stomach. It is not an organ that lives in your armpit. Your metabolism is the sum of certain processes in your body; it is a combination of chemical processes from various complex systems that give you life. There are many factors that contribute to and affect our metabolism such as age, gender, diet, weight, muscle mass, blood sugar, hormones, stress, environmental factors, and thousands of other body processes that are too long and too complex to list. So, to think that simply eating less food more often throughout the day will address and affect all of these factors is simplistic at best.
Leave the Grazing for the Cows
Just think about this logically. From an evolutionary (and practical) perspective, how would the need to eat at 8:00 am, 10:00 am, 12:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 4:00 pm, and 6:00 pm actually work or make sense? Throughout history, meal times have been variable. The human body has evolved to go long periods of time without food. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather just eat, be satisfied and move on, as opposed to feeling the need to snack every 2 to 3 hours during the day. In fact, the need to eat frequently, getting irritable between meals, and getting that hangry feeling is all signs that your blood sugar is disrupted and the strategy of multiple meals per day is not working for you. In my opinion, people should be able to comfortably go 4 or more hours between meals, and if you can’t it’s a good sign your blood sugar isn’t well-balanced and needs to be addressed.
Make Blood Sugar Your Friend
I would argue that eating less frequently actually has more benefits than eating multiple small meals per day. By eating every 2-3 hours, you are constantly spiking your blood sugar throughout the day which means your body is constantly using sugar (or glucose) for fuel. In a balanced state, the body should be able to use both glucose and fat for fuel, however, it will always prioritize using glucose for fuel because it is more easily burned. Think of it like this; carbohydrates (glucose) are your body’s first source of gasoline, while fat is your backup gas. Although the body loves using fat for fuel, it only does so when your body is out of readily available glucose. So if you are constantly eating, therefore constantly delivering glucose to the bloodstream, your body no longer needs to use fat for fuel. Over time, your body will become more dependent on glucose for fuel, which means the body will become less and less efficient at burning fat for fuel. This perpetuates the cycle of needing to eat more frequently because your body has become so dependent on glucose for energy. Not only does this mean you will experience more dips and spikes in blood sugar, which are often displayed by increased cravings, feeling hangry, and difficulty losing weight, but some evidence suggests it is harder to feel full on smaller meals which can lead to increased food intake. Given many people try and use the 6 meals per day formula as a tool for weight loss, this can end up defeating the intended purpose of “stoking” your metabolism or burning body fat.
You Need Better Meals not More Frequent Meals
Eating well has less to do with meal timing and frequency and more to do with the quality of the food you eat. Whether you eat 500 calories 6 times per day or 1000 calories 3 times per day, makes absolutely no difference. What is more important is the quality of the food that you eat; focusing on whole foods and real ingredients. Eating 6 times per day with cereal for breakfast, a sub for lunch, pasta for dinner, and snacks of granola bars, crackers, and popcorn are not going to solve any of your problems.
Pay Attention to your Hunger Cues
Rather, what is more important is eating real food that satisfies you and paying attention to your personal hunger cues. You can talk to every nutrition expert in the world, but you already have the best nutrition coach you will ever get – your own body. You don’t need to eat at 8:00 am, 10:00 am, 12:00 pm, 2:00 pm, 4:00 pm, and 6:00 pm if you are not hungry at those times, there is absolutely no benefit to it. If you are hungry when you wake up – eat, if you are not hungry when you wake up – don’t. When people tell me they are hungry in between their meals, I don’t suggest adding snacks, I suggest eating bigger meals. I would much prefer people eat to their own personal hunger cues than some made-up guideline, bro-science, or nutrition dogma.
The Bottom Line
Look, at the end of the day, there is no perfect formula. I know that’s what people want, but it just doesn’t exist. There is probably someone that operates really well on 6 meals per day, but if that doesn’t work for you don’t do it because there is no actual benefit to it. What is more important is focusing on eating real food, eating to the point of satiety, balancing your blood sugar, and listening to your hunger cues.