“Want to lose weight and do it right? Eat 6 meals a day.”
“Want to feed your body properly and put on muscle? Eat 6 meals a day.”
The pesky thing about this whole idea is the fact that it can be applied to both fitness goals. Whether you’re trying to lose weight (lose fat!) or put on muscle, the 6 meals a day concept seems to fit in perfectly into the equation. Now when things just seem so perfect they usually wind up a disappointment, don’t you agree? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we can certainly apply that belief to this. The only difference I’d like to point out is that following the 6 meals a day ideology won’t hurt you, it just won’t do what you expect it to. If it does, it is not as a result of the fact you were actually eating 5-6 meals a day. With me so far? Let’s break this down by looking at the usual claims made to support this concept of constant eating.
1) 6 meals a day will increase your metabolism – no, it won’t. This is one of the most popular myths regarding this entire “diet”, and research has proven time and time again that there is no increase in metabolism for those who eat more meals throughout the day as opposed to those who eat only a few. The reason this has become such a sensational claim rests with the misinterpretation of the thermic effect of food (your body burning calories to digest what you put in it). However, whether you eat 400 calories 6 times or 800 calories 3 times, 5-10% of that used for digestion comes out to the same amount at the end of the day. Increasing the number of times you eat to bring out the thermic effect won’t change anything when the total caloric intake is the same. You want to rev up your metabolism? Hit the gym, that’ll never disappoint.
2) Your body can only digest a certain amount of protein at once – sure, if you’re competing in the hot dog contest and eating an overwhelmingly high amount of food only to take a nap right after. How much protein you can consume at once is certainly not a question you even need to be concerned about (unless you’re like the above example or an equal). The idea that getting food in consistently every 3 hours or so in order for your body to constantly get nutrients into it and be most efficient in helping you achieve your goals is…well, ridiculous. Our bodies are quite efficient, we’re not robots. If you want to dive deep into this topic, just read the linked article.
3) You’ll start losing muscle if you don’t eat for long periods – you’re right, if you’re trapped in a cave and don’t have food for 3 days. Going catabolic (body breaking down muscle for energy) requires intense conditions that you won’t replicate over the course of a day. Think of it this way, it actually would take you a round of some strong effort to put yourself in a muscle-wasting state. It’s not easy to do, and 6 meals a day certainly isn’t required to save you from it.
4) Eating a large meal will cause the body to store fat – apparently, this alerts the body that we might be preparing for a fast and it will try and put on as much body fat as it can in expectation that we might not eat again for a while. Definitely, in the heads of the supplement industry. I have an idea, split that large meal up into a small one and add a protein shake or a few meal bars to the equation and now all is right with the world, right? No.
The only thing that matters in regards to an individual losing fat or gaining muscle is their maintenance calories and whether they’re going above or below them for the day. If the amount of calories it takes for you to stay the same is 2,400 and you eat that in one large meal and don’t eat again for another day, your body is not going to store any fat because that’s the amount of calories it utilizes to keep you where you are. Where is it going to get this fat from when all of these calories will be used in order to maintain the state you’re in? They don’t come out of thin air, like some would have you believe.
5) Fat will come off easier as the body doesn’t try to cling to it – this is the opposite of the above. So let’s use the same example. If I’m trying to lose fat and my maintenance is 2400 calories for the day, if I have one meal consisting of 2000 calories and nothing else for a whole day, my body will be in a caloric deficit and over time I will lose some weight. I require 2400, and I only get 2000. If I continue this, I’ll shrink until my body only requires 2000 and then I’ll be equal (maintenance) and stagnate until I alter my diet again (very simplified, but gets the point across). Again, your body will not manufacture calories from thin air to make up the difference, it doesn’t work that way.
The above are the most popular “benefits” that those who believe in the 6 meals a day concept push forth constantly. They’re not true, but that doesn’t make the 6 meals a day concept wrong. It can certainly be the best way to eat, but that is solely dependent on the individual. The point that’s important to get out of this is that eating those 6 meals a day is not responsible for any claimed benefits described above, and your fitness goals will be achieved due to factors outside of the amount of meals you eat a day. Calories are your #1 priority, and if you know your maintenance you can achieve your goals whichever way you’d like to eat. For some eating 6 meals a day is perfect because it keeps them from overeating, for others eating that amount of times a day will cause them to overeat. The choice of meal frequency is up to you, just know that that frequency is not going to magically aid you or hurt you. It is the calories that do the work in changing your body. For a similarly related topic, check out our Clean Food vs. Bad Food: Benefits article and how it relates to achieving your goals. Good luck!
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