Watching the clock for the next feeding time is just part of going on a diet to lose weight. You may have been told six small meals per day is best. That eating every few hours keeps the metabolism going, and to lose weight, you better be careful not to go into starvation mode.  In this article I’m going to offer a different approach, and bust that myth once and for all.

Small meals at 7am, 10am, 12pm, 3pm, 5pm, 8pm;  I was on this schedule for years. I’d arrive to work with my industrial sized lunch box, yet still be fighting with my hunger the entire day. God forbid someone brought treats into the office or supper wasn’t ready when I got home. It was a living torture feeling “starving” all day.

I’d last about 4 or 5 days until the hunger would win, and I’d eat enough to finally feel “satisfied”. I’d overeat anything I could get my hands on, plan to start over again on Monday, and arrive to work with my 12 tupperware containers and raging appetite.

If this way of eating and living sounds familiar to you,  I’m here to offer an alternative that might even make things easier for weight loss (and your sanity).

What does the research say about 6 small meals, and what have I, and my clients, experienced?

Frequent eating leads to less satisfaction through the day

When meals and snacks are too small, the hormonal signal to fully “shut off” hunger never gets switched on. Even if it feels like eating is a full time job, you never actually feel satisfied. You’re busy eating, and thinking about food all day; a nightmare when you’re actually trying to eat less and worry about food less.

Frequent eating actually means higher total food intake

Research consistently shows that the more often people eat, the more they eat. The muffin you eat as a morning snack, doesn’t actually help you eat less at lunch.

Studies actually show that the more often a person eats, the higher the odds they are overweight or obese.

In my experience, frequent small meals keeps a person hungry all day, and leads to overeating or binging at some point in the week. So, in a 7 day period, it’s really hard to keep that consistency going for weight loss to happen. I mean really; how long can you stay hungry for before you want to feel full?

 Frequent eating has zero benefit to metabolism

There is zero increase in metabolism when you eat more often. This is a really bad myth that just doesn’t seem to die!

We think the myth comes from the fact that you do burn energy to digest your meal. So the idea was that the more often you eat, the more often you burn energy to digest those meals. However, the energy you burn to digest is actually related to the number of total calories. 1200 calories x 6 meals or 1200 calories x 3 meals = same amount of energy burned to digest.

Meal frequency from 3 or less to 6 meals or more has no effect on metabolism. I repeat. The number of times you eat has zero impact on your metabolism. 

Frequent eating makes fat loss harder because you are constantly needing snacks for energy, and can’t use your own fat stores

When you’re constantly feeding yourself, insulin levels stay up all day. When insulin is pumping, fat breakdown can’t happen. Which means, eating all day actually prevents your body from using its fat stores for energy. You end up always relying on external food to keep you going.

Instead of you going into “starvation mode” 3-4 hours after you eat, you actually go into a “post-absorptive” state, which is when you’ve digested and absorbed the nutrients from your last meal, and your body starts using its fat stores for energy.

And the more you allow your body to have some rest between meals, the more your body gets good at it! The less hungry you’ll feel between meals and the more of your own fat you’ll burn.

What eating schedule works better?

This habit completely changed how my days look, improved my hunger, my energy levels, and seriously improved my consistency through the week. I’ve supported hundreds of people to make this switch, and they’re always surprised they feel satisfied yet still lose weight. 

Instead of 6 meals, I switched to 3 or 4 bigger satisfying meals. Having more food with each meal, led to 2 or 3 less snacks, way less mindless snacking, while still feeling more satisfied and more sane through the day. More sanity through the week, led to more consistency through the weekend.

If you’re interested in giving this a try, I suggest really honing in on your snacking, and eliminating all those bites and snacks between your 3 meals.  Keep in mind your body might be rusty at using its own stores for energy. So,  allow yourself some time to adjust.

Your meals might need to be a bit bigger and adjusted to have all 3 macronutrients (protein, fat, high fibre carbohydrates) and maybe more vegetables:

Breakfast: Typically people need to add more protein and fat here. Add a couple eggs, avocado on the side, natural almond butter to your smoothie.

Lunch: Typically people need more vegetables, protein and fat here. Add nuts, more meat, way more vegetables, chickpeas or quinoa to a salad, olive oil to a homemade salad dressing.

Supper: Typically people need more vegetables here. Aim for a minimum of 2 cups of vegetables. Have at least 2 kinds: maybe a green one, and one other colour.

See my last article on what to eat for more guidance:

Now, there are a few times eating a 4th meal can be helpful.

Afternoons between 3-5 pm: 

If you are mindlessly snacking between lunch and supper, your supper is usually really late or you’re overeating at night, an afternoon meal between 3-5pm can be helpful to curb those habits. Try some nuts,or some full fat-higher protein yogurt with berries.

Evenings after supper:

If you are overeating after supper, snacking mindlessly in front of the TV before bed, and if your supper is early, planning a smaller evening meal that you enjoy can be helpful and strategic. Again, go for something nutritious and satisfying like yogurt, nuts and berries, or a smoothie.

Let’s recap:

Having more balanced meals and eliminating snacking is helpful for these reasons:

1. Your body will start tapping into its own energy stores more between meals, rather than relying on those little snacks between meals for energy.

2.  Even if your meals are bigger, you actually end up eating less overall.

3. You’ll stop experiencing hunger that feels like an emergency. No more being “hangry” if you don’t eat every 2 hours.

4. You’ll be more satisfied by your meals, therefore more comfortable weight loss, and more consistency.

6. Oh and let’s not forget: less planning, less food to buy, less thoughts about food, and less mess to clean.

Plan for 3-4 meals daily. If you’re having a 4th meal, plan it around the time it makes the most sense for you.

Eat just enough at meals that you can comfortably eliminate snacking. It’s OK to feel a gradual increase in hunger before your next meal, and to have some hunger 30 minutes-60 minutes before your meals. It might mean more fat, more protein, more vegetables during your meals. Prepare for a bit of an adjustment period if you’re a regular snacker.

There really is no “should” or “shouldn’t’s” in nutrition. It’s more about finding a way of eating that works best for you. In my experience, 3-4 meals instead of 6 + meals/mindless snacks is the easiest way to control hunger, lose weight, feel great, and stay consistent. It might not work for everyone though!

Let me know your questions and comments below.