It’s a well-known fact that your diet is in direct correlation with your body composition and weight. When your main goal is losing weight or maintaining the current weight, the most widely used strategy is making changes to your food intake. The majority of people put a great emphasis on the types of foods they eat, and that is definitely crucial, i.e. choosing the right foods can have a great impact on your progress.
However, meal frequency is another essential variable which very often gets neglected. Meal size goes hand in hand. So, how do these two dietary variables influence your weight? When it comes to actual sports, scientists have established timing food intake and meal size for maximizing athletic performance. However, research is barely sufficient for those trying to get rid of a few pounds and they often need to guess how to optimize their food intake to reach their goals.
Over half a century ago, studies have shown that consuming smaller meals frequently was related to lower weight and improved metabolic health. However, lately, those claims have been under substantial scrutiny and scientists are questioning their legitimacy. That leaves us wondering which option is better for weight loss? Eating smaller meals more frequently during the day or having three big meals at regular times (morning, afternoon, evening) during the day?
Before you start figuring out how to optimize your meals to achieve greater weight loss, we first need to look into the internal mechanism of how the body handles food and why meal frequency and size is important.
The thermic effect of food
Food digestion is a complex process. We won’t get into too many scientific details in this article, and we will only focus on a few basics which will be enough to understand why meal frequency and meal size can have a tremendous impact on your weight. Every time you eat a meal, the metabolism speeds up. This is because the processes involved in digestion and nutrient absorption require lots of energy and additional blood flow. Considering that increasing the metabolic rate means more calories spent and more heat generated, the food you’re eating has a property called the “thermic effect”.
The metabolic rate is increased by approximately 25% after each meal, on average. This number can vary depending on factors such as hormonal levels, your circadian rhythm, and weight changes. However, the size of the meal also has a great impact on how much the thermic effect of the food you eat will vary. Larger meals will require more energy so that they can be digested, which in turn causes the metabolic rate to be increased a lot more compared to smaller meals.
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Once a meal enters the stomach and then the intestines, it causes the digestive system to release various hormones which affect your satiety. They are collectively known as “gut hormones”, however, each has its own specific role and effects. These hormones are important since they send a signal to the body telling it to slow down or stop eating altogether.
It would come as no surprise then, that the size of your meal affects the amount of gut hormones released. The body produces greater amounts of gut hormones when you eat meals that have a greater number of calories. Because larger meals usually have more calories, this is one of the reasons why you feel fuller after eating a larger meal. Smaller meals make you feel full for only a short amount of time, which means you’ll be more likely to want to eat very soon after finishing the meal.
The time period that follows after a meal, during digestion and nutrient absorption is known as the “postprandial state”. This is important because the body is primed to store nutrients during this state. Although the metabolic rate is increased after eating a meal, the foods comprising the meal are still broken down and are mostly stored as a backup energy source. When 4 hours have passed since the last meal, the body goes back to its baseline state, when it starts burning up the stores as an energy source.
When you start eating 5-6 smaller meals, instead of 2-3 bigger ones, you spend a greater amount of time in a postprandial state, even though your metabolic rate becomes slightly increased. As we already mentioned, you don’t give the body a reason to release a greater amount of the satiating gut hormones, which may make you feel hungrier during the day. You should keep this in mind when you start reading about how meal frequency and meal size can impact your weight loss progress.
Timing your meals properly for improved body composition
There are some common beliefs regarding this problem that have been proven to be false. Long ago, it was believed that eating frequent, smaller meals was the only way to keep your weight low. Well, it’s high time to dispel that myth. When someone starts following a low-calorie diet, he/she usually thinks that spreading their meals evenly throughout the day will reduce their appetite and make it much easier for them to follow their diet.
Well, this isn’t necessarily true. Several studies have shown that eating lots of meals during the day (something like 8 meals) makes you hungrier, causes cravings, and makes you feel less satiated than eating a small number of meals (3 daily).
Unfortunately, the study did not provide information as to why this happened. But, it’s possible this might have had something to do with the differences in how smaller and larger amounts of food are digested and the effects on satiety and gut hormone levels. Regardless, this particular study is just one piece of the entire puzzle. Appetite is a crucial factor, but the result we’re looking for is improved overall body composition.
During the course of two months, consuming just one meal a day resulted in a greater fat mass loss than consuming 2 meals a day. Even though the actual number of meals a day in this specific study was different than many others you have read about, it nevertheless shows us that consuming fewer meals a day can help with achieving an improved body composition, especially as a short-term goal.
Evidence has also been collected from some larger studies and it has been shown that increased meal frequency is usually associated with increased weight in the long-term. Taking into account that some of these studies are usually observational in nature and collected from large groups of subjects, their results are not very useful for a proper explanation of why certain things occur. However, they’re a great way to get a general idea of what works and what doesn’t. In one study consisting of approximately 20,000 subjects, scientists found that both men and women were around 1.5 times more likely to have excess weight or be obese if they ate 5 or more times a day, compared to 3 times or fewer.
Even though this doesn’t explain why eating more frequently was related to increased weight, it’s worth noting that this was still true even for those who thought of their smaller meals as nothing more than snacks. Those who were classified as eating with high frequency weren’t exactly eating 5 full meals per day. The evidence coming from this type of studies has a greater credibility when subjects are carefully monitored over longer periods of time.
This way, it is possible to observe even minor changes, instead of making assumptions about possible relations between different variables in a shorter amount of time. In another study which followed thousands of men in the course of a decade, scientists found that the men who ate more than three meals a day were 15% more likely to increase their weight by 10 lbs over the decade.
It is incredibly difficult if not outright impossible to determine from these studies if consuming fewer meals will directly trigger weights loss or lower the likelihood of weight gain, but one can certainly conclude that those who eat with decreased frequency tend to maintain a healthy body weight. One should also keep in mind that the number you see on the scale is not what truly matters and is not a good indicator of your health.
Body composition is a far more important factor than weight, considering that one can be deemed ‘heavy” and still have lots of muscle mass. Once we’re on the subject, you’d want to avoid the look known as ‘skinny fat’. Clinical studies are essential when it comes to determining if you should actually employ a specific nutritional strategy. Next, we explain the exact way in which meal frequency influences your appetite and overall body composition.
Why meal frequency is an important factor
Let’s delve into why lower meal frequency actually seems to better improve weight and fat loss instead of constantly eating smaller meals throughout the day. The main reason why this occurs is that of the physiology of your food intake. There was another study which found that eating two times (instead of six) per day is better for losing weight and the gut hormone release response to reduced meal frequency meant that participants were more likely to want to have breakfast. We’ll go into more details on this topic, but for now, it’s enough to know that consuming breakfast can greatly help you achieve weight and fat loss.
Studies have also shown that fewer meals during the day resulted in a greater release of one of the key hormones which increase satiety after eating a meal. Higher consumption of protein was also associated with increased satiety. This means that it should be a lot easier to follow a low-calorie diet if you consume your prescribed calories a just two or three meals a day. It is also essential that you get your daily protein requirements too.
Caloric restriction versus fasting
In comparison to meal frequency and meal timing strategies, caloric restriction and fasting are more conventional methods of losing weight. Regardless, these are very important strategies that everyone should be aware of, considering that caloric restriction can be done along with optimal meal frequency.
Caloric restriction is pretty much self-explanatory, however, intermittent fasting and alternate day fasting weren’t as popular as of recently.
Intermittent fasting is basically not eating for long stretches of time during the day or night, and consuming all of your daily calories in a specific time window. Alternate day fasting involves alternating days where one day you eat normally, and then not eat at all the next day. So, which one suits you better?
Caloric restriction will most certainly help you lose fat almost always since it causes a deficit in energy. It has also been proven to be more effective than intermittent fasting, even though intermittent fasting still causes weight loss and might be a bit more difficult to follow in the long-term. Alternate day fasting usually results in the same amount of lost weight as caloric restriction, so you might as well try them both to see which one suit you better psychologically. You should only keep in mind that sticking with the former strategy in the long-term can be hard because you are likely to be extremely hungry on the fasting days.
Energy deficit rules them all
If losing weight or fat is your primary goal, strategies such as fasting or changing meal frequency can seem quite fancy and appealing. However, no matter how many different strategies you try you should never lose sight of the fact that the most effective thing you can do has always been a moderate decrease in your caloric intake. In order to lose weight, being in an energy deficit is an absolute must and no amount of tackling with your meal frequency or changing your meal size will change that. One study provided sufficient evidence to support this claim. When participants were on the same amount of energy deficit, they lost the same weight on a high meal frequency diet as on a low meal frequency diet.
We don’t mean to say that meal frequency doesn’t matter; it does, as has been said numerous times in this article. When following a low-calorie diet, people who ate two meals a day lost more weight than those who ate six meals a day. However, with no energy deficit present, neither the high meal frequency nor the low meal frequency group lose weight.
Are there any side effects?
As with any other thing, whenever someone makes a drastic change in their routine or lifestyle, there is a certain possibility of something going wrong. The same applies to changing meal frequency when trying to improve your body composition. In normal conditions, protein has a small contribution to energy production. However, after going extended periods of time without eating, when all the carbohydrate and fat stores have been used up, the body starts breaking down protein in greater amounts as an energy source. This means that one potential unintended side-effect is muscle tissue breakdown when employing strategies such as intermittent fasting and alternate day fasting. Even with decreasing meal frequency, several studies have shown that eating two meals a day results in decreased lean muscle mass compared to eating six meals a day.
On the other hand, in men who had done resistance training for several years, fasting strategies like intermittent fasting may not have the same effect on muscle tissue breakdown. Scientists are still divided on whether fasting strategies and decreasing meal frequency can negatively impact lean muscle mass. In the study on resistance trained men who didn’t lose muscle mass, they ate a large amount of protein every day, which potentially warded off any loss of muscle tissue.
In any case, it is important to note that one could always experience unintended consequences with any change that they make in their diet. To avoid muscle tissue breakdown, you should make sure that you thoroughly plan your diet strategy before making any changes. It is also crucial that you start a solid strength training regimen to at least maintain muscle, and maybe even gain some.
Meals greatly impact your physiology, and your overall diet plays a crucial role in how your body composition will be. Changing your meal frequency influences your ability to achieve your body composition goals since meals also impact your metabolic rate, satiety, and gut hormone levels. To this day, research isn’t fully conclusive about decreasing meal frequency. However, lots of promising studies have been made which suggest that it is a strategy that could work for the majority of people. Here are some of the few key points:
- Decreased meal frequency is associated with fat and weight loss. (intermittent fasting)
- Calorie restriction (energy deficit) is essential to achieving fat and weight loss.
- Eating breakfast is helpful.
- One should train regularly to keep the metabolic rate and energy expenditure elevated, as well as maintain their health and fitness while losing weight.
Even though consuming two meals a day may seem like the most effective dietary strategy for fat and weight loss, it is possible that it may not work for you. You should make sure that you mitigate any unintended side-effects by carefully defining your goals and planning a nutrition strategy before you start anything. Make your goals as clear as possible, write them down if you have to, how you plan to make changes in your diet and assess your body composition at regular intervals to find out if you’re making any progress.
There’s no magic fix for this, you cannot just eat a magic pill and solve your body composition problems. The only things that will help you are hard work and dedication. However, if you’re trying to find something that will greatly quicken the process, you should consider optimizing your nutrition strategies.