Client Question: I keep reading that it’s best to eat small meals 4-6 times throughout the day rather than 3 large meals. Does it really make a difference?
Gina’s Answer: The answer to this question depends on your goals…
…If your primary goal is muscle-building or sports-performance, then yes, you should make a point to eat at least four times per day. See, your body is generally either in an anabolic (building) state or a catabolic (breaking-down) state. When you go longer than three hours without consuming any nutrients, your body will shift into a catabolic state, which means that your muscles will not be able to recover optimally and your body will begin to tap into it’s fuel reserves for energy, whether that be in the form of burning fat, burning muscle glycogen, or burning muscle tissue itself. The only way to prevent this is to consume the proper mix of nutrients every three-four hours—and usually that mix of nutrients includes some carbohydrate, some protein, and some fat. Bars and shakes as well as whole foods can be consumed to serve this purpose. An added bonus is that eating more frequently makes it much easier to consume the high number of calories required to build muscle or improve sports performance.
However, if your primary goal is fat loss or weight loss, it actually does not matter for most individuals whether you eat three times per day or six times per day, as long as your daily calories are in the correct range to allow for fat loss. People sometimes say that it is better to eat more often for fat loss because each time you eat you boost your metabolism. This is true, but the fact is that your metabolism is actually boosted in proportion to the size of the meal—so if you eat three large meals, your metabolism will be boosted to a high degree three times, whereas if you eat six small meals, your metabolism is boosted to a lesser degree, but six times! The net effect on your metabolism is the same. HOWEVER, studies show that people tend to adhere better to their diet plans when they eat more often so that they never allow themselves to become too hungry. This means that eating more frequently is preferable in terms of appetite control for most people. If you have no problem controlling your appetite then you can eat just three times a day and lose fat just fine. However, if you are like most people and find it difficult to control your appetite while you are dieting, you will be better off eating smaller meals but eating 4-6 times per day.
No matter what your goals are, having the correct daily calorie balance will be the most important determinant of your results by far. Make sure you nail that one down first. You will probably find in all cases that it is easier to follow your diet plan when you eat smaller meals more frequently. However, if you prefer to eat three larger meals or your schedule does not always allow for more frequent eating, as long as your total calories and nutrient intake are in the appropriate range, you should still make fine progress.
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