The Meal Frequency Myth: Do You Have To Eat Every 3 Hours?

A Little Background

You have to eat every three hours. Don’t question it, it’s broscience law. “It’s so you can keep your metabolism working and stay lean!” Like most popular nutritional belief, this piece of advice refuses to go away.

The premise is simple and on the surface, makes sense. Purportedly, by eating often your digestive system stays active and the thermogenic calorie burn is continuous.

But why is this opinion so pervasive? My guess is that it’s tied to the “eat one gram of protein per pound of body weight” myth.

Specifically, since it was previously assumed that your body can only break down 10g of protein every hour, bodybuilders began shoving down protein at a rate of 30g every three hours.

Which, by the way, is where the “this is the most your body can effectively consume” number comes from.

But both myths are just that, myths. It’s been proven time and time that there is no “number.” Similarly, there is no right or wrong frequency!

The Science

For most, spreading meals in three-hour increments has the effect of doubling meals for the day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, become six smaller meals.

This purportedly leads to “increased” metabolic activity and induces a myriad of health benefits and weight loss. Unfortunately, actual research paints a different picture.

Specifically, a seminal cross-analysis of available research “found no evidence of weight loss in low calorie regimens when tested for various meal frequencies.”1

Conducted by Paris’ oldest medical institution, the Hotel Dieu de Paris – not an actual hotel – study surveyed a cross-section of research pertaining to meal frequency. The findings were unanimous; meal frequency has no effect on the human metabolism.

Specifically, the research concluded that any findings indicating a correlation between increased meal frequency and weight loss “is at best very weak, and almost certainly represents an artefact.” 1

Further, the detailed review notes that “any advantage of nibbling meal patterns failed to reveal significant benefits in respect of energy expenditure.” 1

A further review, conducted jointly by Newcastle University and Griffith University, took into account 179 relevant studies. The findings were similar, namely, available evidence “suggests there is no association between eating frequency and weight or health in either weight-loss or – maintenance interventions.” 1

Eating Frequency and Appetite Control

Another often cited benefit of eating more frequently is the supposed effect on better appetite control. Ostensibly, if you eat more often, you’re less likely to feel hungry and will consume fewer calories throughout the day.

On the surface, this makes sense. There’s simply less time to be hungry. However, the research shows something different on this topic as well.

Specifically, a 2011 University of Missouri study2 found that “increased eating frequency [more than three meals per day] has minimal, if any, impact on appetite control and food intake, whereas reduced eating frequency [less than three meals per day] negatively affects appetite control.”

Eating Frequency and Exercise

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of research considering the effects of meal frequency on muscle gain. One 2002 study3 however, found that weight gain observed in test subjects was due to higher caloric intake, not meal frequency.

Meal Frequency and Intermittent Fasting

It’s worth noting that there is some evidence indicating a boost in growth hormone production during intermittent fasting. However, there is a difference. Intermittent fasting, and the 16/8 method, in particular, restricts you to a feeding window.

Higher meal frequency, on the other hand, does not put your body through prolonged fasting periods. However, it is that fasted state that may promote growth hormone production.

It Ain’t All Bad Though

Eating more frequently does have its benefits, however. It may not rev up your metabolism, but it may still cause weight loss in other ways.

There are two schools of anecdotal thought on the subject. So it’s not surprising to hear some people experience weight loss with more frequent meals because – contrary to the aforementioned studies – they do in fact feel less hungry.

On the other hand, there are people for whom frequent eating leads to constantly thinking about food and ultimately translates to binging. Neither set can, nor should, be discredited.

As with all study backed observations and “truths,” the particular research cited herein should only be a reference point. Hence, if spacing out your meals helps you reach your objective, do it.

If it doesn’t work for you, move on and try something else.

Other Benefits

  • Increased Energy. Eating the same amount of food in fewer meals means higher calorie intake and a higher risk of post-meal sleepiness. As an example, if you’re eating 3,000 calories a day, your three meals are 1,000 calories each. A meal that size is a food coma waiting to happen.
  • Decreased Hunger. If you decrease meal size while increasing meal frequency, your stomach’s size will diminish accordingly. Hence, you will feel fuller sooner.

Personal Experience

I began eating my meals in some varying frequency when I signed up for the gym. Looking to change my dietary and fitness habits, and I thought eating every three hours was a part of that.

Skipping research, I didn’t do my due diligence. But I wasn’t concerned since I was seeing the results I was striving for. In retrospect, those muscle gains and fat losses were very likely derived from other aspects of my regimen; tighter diet and more exercise, not meal frequency.

 

But I haven’t stopped, I’m still eating every three hours. For me, there’s an incidental benefit to the practice.

Similar to intermittent fasting, eating on a more frequent and set schedule places you on a timetable. Such practice is imperative when striving for better health and fitness.

It develops an internal system, it sets up and enforces a habit. This habit enables you to stay on task and pursue the goals you set out to achieve. Sticking to any plan is much easier when you’ve set the right foundations. A proper schedule is that foundation.

 

 

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