Corporate Athlete 101: Meal Frequency

Here is the third question in a series I’ve received from Jeremy Jauncey.  The following Q&A will be used in the nutrition 101 package for our corporate athlete plan.

“Is it true you should eat every three hours? Why? There’s a lot said about 5-6 small meals a day and eating every 3 hours… Why is this good and what is the science behind it?”

Is there a scientific term for… nibbling?

The nibblers of the world are practicing something called, “meal frequency,” which is defined as six smaller meals and/or eating every three hours.  The debate in question: does eating frequent mini-meals have a positive effect on metabolism, appetite, weight and overall health?

The research (is limited… blurg!)

Like most topics in nutrition, research is equivocal on meal frequency.  Don’t throw your hands up in the air just yet…  There is a position stand on this stuff!  (Position stands are official statements from medical and athletic associations that analyze all of the current research on various topics).

The 2011 position stand on meal frequency was published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. According to the stand, researchers started reviewing meal frequency almost 50 years ago.  The majority of research has been studied on overweight and obese subjects.  Some recent research focuses on normal weight and athletic populations; but most of the time, we need to draw conclusions for those populations from obese and overweight studies.

What we know (and don’t know) on meal frequency…

  1. METABOLISM: We know metabolism does not speed up.
    • The 2011 JISSN position stand states that increasing meal frequency does not significantly raise metabolic rate (the speed at which we burn calories– even if we do nothing).  Eating raises metabolic rate slightly (this is called thermogenesis), but not enough to support the notion that meal frequency can churn up metabolism.
  2. APPETITE: We know appetite is better regulated.
    • The 2011 JISSN position stand reported on a number of studies whose subjects felt hungrier when they ate 1-2 meals versus frequent mini-meals.  Stretch receptors in the stomach stimulate hormones that signal satiety — researchers suggest that eating more frequently might stimulate the “feeling full” hormones to curb appetite.
  3. WEIGHT: We know people don’t lose more weight.
    • A 2010 study in the British Journal of Nutrition evaluated two groups that consumed the same exact amount of calories, one had six meals per day (3 meals plus 3 snacks), the other group had three meals per day (3 meals).  Both groups lost equal amounts of weight, showing that the calorie restriction over the meal frequency was the main determinant.
    • The 2011 JISSN position stand also reports on studies whose conclusions showed that weight loss did not occur with increased mini meals.
  4. OVERALL HEALTH: We know meal frequency can reduce total cholesterol.
    • According to a study published in the British Medical Journal, those who ate six smaller meals had reduced cholesterol levels (five percent lower than people who ate one-two meals per day).
    • The 2011 JISSN position stand supports the idea that mini-meals improve blood readings, particularly, LDL cholesterol and insulin levels (hormone that lowers blood glucose levels after meal time).

What the experts recommend…

From a purely scientific perspective, the experts have agreed that healthier metabolisms, appetites, weights and overall health have not been significantly correlated with meal frequency.  Experts say that whether you eat three meals per day, six mini-meals, or one magnificently sized dinner, the body is most affected by calories in:calories out.

What I think?

Why you should do it….

Okay, I get calories in:calories out—a fun way of saying we need to burn equal to or more than the amount we consume if we want to maintain or lose weight.  True.

But I have a hard time believing that Eater A (having had a thanksgiving dinner of close to 2000 calories before bedtime and does this everyday for months straight) is going to have a similar body composition, metabolism, appetite, and weight as Eater B (who eats the same meal composition, spread into mini-meals throughout the day).

Here are my pretend Eaters’ food logs:

Eater A (gorger) Eater B (nibbler)
10 pm: 2 egg whites, 1 whole egg, ½ cup oats, 1 large grapefruit, 1 medium apple, 1 baby-bel light, 2 slices whole wheat bread, 5 oz turkey, side salad with 1 tbsp oil and vinegar, Fage total classic yogurt with honey, 4 oz salmon, ¾ cup brown rice, 1 cup kale, 1 tbsp chipotle mayo, 22 dry roasted almonds, 1 oz Ghirardelli’s dark chocolate (60% cacao)

(1932 kcal, 200g carbs, 162g protein, 96.5g fat)

8 am: 2 egg whites, 1 whole egg, ½ cup oats, 1 large grapefruit

(363 kcal, 54g carbs, 20g protein, 8g fat)

10:30 am: 1 medium apple, 1 baby-bel light

(145 kcal, 25g carbs, 6.5g protein, 3.5g fat)

1:30 pm: 2 slices whole wheat bread, 5 oz turkey, side salad with 1 tbsp oil/vinegar

(430 kcal, 38g carbs, 32g protein, 19g fat)

4:30 pm: Fage total classic yogurt with honey

(260 kcal, 28g carbs, 9g protein, 12g fat)

7:30 pm: 4 oz salmon, ¾ cup brown rice, 1 cup kale, 1 tbsp chipotle mayo

(504 kcal, 37g carbs, 31g protein, 25g fat)

10:30 pm: 11 dry roasted almonds, 1 oz Ghirardelli’s dark chocolate (60% cacao)

(230 kcal, 18g carbs, 4.5g protein, 29g fat)

Why you shouldn’t do it….

I also understand that eating frequently is not for everyone.  First of all, it’s time consuming… You have to pack a bag full of food, in advance, likely with ice-packs and ziplocks–the whole gamut– it’s a ton of work!  Second of all, you have to be pretty-pretty-Larry-David in tune to when you are hungry so you don’t mindlessly graze.  Third, it’s sort of annoying if you aren’t uber into it (bag is heavier, you have to be the annoying one crunching the bag at the meeting or whipping out a smelly tuna salad).


There is no number of meals you should eat or not eat per day if you follow the guideline to: Eat when hungry, choose healthy foods most of the time, don’t eat a lot.

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