Are 6 Meals a Day Better than 3 for Fat Loss?
Updated: Feb 16, 2020
Meal frequency is an interesting topic. Around 15 years ago, fitness magazines/writers were telling readers to consume more, smaller meals throughout the day to get leaner.
The reasons may have varied, but they generally revolved around "boosting" one's metabolism, decreasing cortisol, and lowering blood sugar to enhance fat loss. Sounds good, right? I thought so too (at the time) and I decided to try it.
Just to give you a little background on myself, at the time I had already competed in a few bodybuilding shows and was trying to learn more about proper nutrition and diet strategies. My main source of information, like many, was fitness magazines. So if a well-known nutrition guru suggests eating six meals a day to get leaner then I was going to heed their advice.
Now I can't really complain about the results I got from eating six meals a day. I may not have been too keen on preparing so many meals for the day and eating all the time, but I got fairly lean. In my mind, the ends justified the means. Therefore, if six meals a day lead to greater fat loss, then that's what I had to do. Besides, if I was getting results then six meals a day must be superior for fat loss, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Let me explain.
Fast forward a few years and I started delving into the research. There are actually quite a few studies comparing meal frequency, but let me give you a quick summary on a few them and one review:
16 obese subjects (with average BMI of 37) were split into two groups. Both groups were put on a calorie-reduced diet (a reduction of about 700 k/cal a day) for 8 weeks. The difference between groups was that one group split their total daily caloric over three meals while the other did so over six.
Before and after the 8 weeks, the subjects had their weight, fat mass and lean body mass recorded.
The results showed that both groups lost weight, fat mass and lean body mass. However, there was no significant difference between groups. So in this case, it doesn't look the number of meals had an influence on overall fat loss. Enter study #2.
In this study, researchers compared the effects of a high-protein diet (35% of total caloric intake) split between three or six meals a day. What’s interesting about this study is that after baseline studying, the researchers also had test subjects follow two different phases of caloric intake.
The first phase, which lasted 28 days, had subjects consumed “an energy-balanced diet” (i.e. they consumed a diet calculated to meet 100% of their daily caloric expenditure). The second phase, which was also 28 days, had subjects consume a calorie-deficient diet (-25% maintenance).
The results showed that during the first phase of the study those who consumed either three or six meals a day maintained their bodyweight. However, only those who divided their daily caloric intake over six meals lost body fat and increased lean muscle mass.
Essentially, they traded off fat for muscle! So, what happened when they were on a calorie-restricted diet? That’s where it gets even more interesting.
During the second phase, the six-meal group, on average, lost more body fat than the three meal group (1.72 vs, 1.3 lbs., respectively). Not really that much more in the grand scheme of things, but it was statistically significant. Interesting, a post hoc analysis of the the data showed that who ate six meals a day were able to maintain a higher lean body mass.
In this study, a higher meal frequency (six meals a day) seems favourable to a lower one (three meals a day). Fair enough. So let's talk about one more study with leaner individuals.
This study is a bit different from the two previously mentioned ones. This study was conducted on 12 boxers and showed that during a calorie-restricted diet, six meals a day helped subjects lose more body fat (6 vs. 3 lbs.) and preserve more lean body mass (5 vs, 8 lbs.) when compared to consuming two meals a day (not three). However, a closer examination of this study is in order as it did have some major shortcomings.
First off, this was only a two-week study using a small sample size. Also, the boxers in this study were only consuming 1200 k/cal a day. That's low. Additionally, the boxers only consumed about 60g of protein per day, which isn't much either. This diet is basically a recipe for muscle loss, regardless of how many meals someone consumed and I cringed just thinking about it. So, maybe six meals a day would be better if you're starving yourself.
I mention these studies for a few of reasons:
All three are generally brought up to support or debunk the stance that six meals a day are better than three for fat loss. So, I thought you should be aware of, and understand, them. That said, as I mentioned earlier, there are quite a few studies on meal frequency - too numerous to mention here - but a few researchers got together and did a meta-analysis on this, which combines data from multiple studies to identify a common effect. The studies mentioned above were included in this meta-analysis.
They included 15 studies in their meta-analysis and what they found was that meal frequency did not have a significant affect on body weight change when the total calorie intake for the day was the same. However, they did find that a higher meal frequency was associated with higher losses of fat mass and greater retention of lean mass. Based on this information, you might think that 6 meals a day may help improve body composition (less fat, more lean mass).
So, the magazines and gurus were right... right? Maybe not.
The researchers behind the meta-analysis did a sensitivity analysis (a process of removing one study at a time from the collected data to see if it had an over influence on the results) and found that if they removed the third study mentioned above (the one where they starved the boxers) then it completely eliminated the significant effect of meal frequency on changes in body composition.
Therefore, based on the information above, at this point, I can't see a reason to favour 6 meals over three to help with fat loss. While at one point I did, I believe this was an earlier lesson in correlation vs. causation.
Just because I was able to get into great shape by eating six meals a day didn't necessarily mean it was the reason. As I mentioned earlier, I was learning more about proper nutrition and diet strategies at the time (and also making use of this newfound info), which is much more important than meal frequency.
From a coaching perspective, having worked with many clients over the years, I can tell you that I have not seen meal frequency have an impact on overall progress. What is important about meal frequency tho is that you eat the right number meals, which works for you and your lifestyle.
And now you know. :-)
For more information:
Study #1: Cameron, JD. et al. Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. Br J Nutr. 2010. 103, 1098–1101.
Study #2: Arciero, PJ. et al. Increased protein intake and meal frequency reduces abdominal fat during energy balance and energy deficit. 2013. Obesity. Vol. 21. 7. 1357-1366.
Study #3: Iwao, S. et al. Effects of meal frequency on body composition during weight control in boxers. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 1996;6:265–272.
Meta-Analysis: Schoenfeld, BJ. et al. Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis. Nutr Rev. 2015 Feb;73(2):69-82.