I’m sick of protein shakes just looking at this.
“Eat 6 times a day to boost your metabolism.”
“Eat a big breakfast or you’ll get fat.”
“Only eat protein and carbs before and after working out.”
“Don’t eat a big meal late in the day.”
Another Fat Loss Myth
Everyone’s heard these platitudes but they’re part of a broader class of advice built around the idea that the timing (and composition) of meals is extremely important for losing fat. Miss breakfast and your body won’t start burning calories because it’s in starvation mode; eat a big meal before bed and all those calories will go straight to your thighs as you rest. The advice certainly sounds plausible and actually kind of makes sense, but unfortunately there isn’t any research to back it up.
One of the latest research papers to fail to find any connection between meal frequency and fat loss was electronically published last month: “Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8 week energetic energy restricted diet.” Two groups of obese subjects were put on diets consisting of either 3 meals or 3 meals with 3 snacks each day. Both groups lost weight and body fat without any significant differences between the two.
Several previous studies have covered similar ground in meal frequency, from eating once per day (also referred to as a type of intermittent fasting) all the way up to 9 meals a day. The majority have shown no significant differences in terms of fat loss. *
So if meal frequency doesn’t matter, should I just eat whenever I feel like it? Well, yes and no:
- Yes, because there is no physiological reason to prefer 3 meals a day over 5 meals, or even 1 meal a day over 9.
- No, because other issues can come into play, namely satiety and compliance.
Dieting is difficult—you’re often hungry, lethargic, and even cranky, as your hormones get out of whack. Any strategies you can come up with to struggle through are worthwhile as far as I’m concerned. If that means eating a decent-sized breakfast so you aren’t starving when the pastry cart comes by your desk, go for it! If having several meals during the day keeps you satiated until bedtime, go for that, especially if the alternative is ordering (and eating) an entire pizza at 10pm.
The most important thing is not when you eat, but what’s on your plate. To lose weight, you have to achieve a caloric deficit by ingesting fewer calories than you burn. With that goal in mind, figure out the necessary steps to achieve it, and definitely don’t beat yourself up over missing breakfast or having a bowl of cereal before bed.
*Frequency of feeding, weight reduction and energy metabolism; The effect of meal frequency and protein concentration on the composition of the weight lost by obese subjects;
I was alerted to the papers mentioned by the latest issue of Alan Aragon’s Research Review. I highly recommend subscribing to this publication. Not only do you get fantastic, unbiased analysis of the latest fitness-related research, you’ll also be able to read a few recent guest articles of mine!