Do I need to eat six times a day to keep my metabolism high?

There may be benefits to manipulating meal frequency and eating the same amount of food more often or less often, but metabolic rate is not one of them. There is no evidence to support the idea that multiple meals increases metabolic rate


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Effects of eating frequency on metabolic rate

One side of the argument for 'keeping the metabolic rate up' with eating frequency implies that more frequent eating patterns increase the metabolic rate.

A meta-analysis conducted on eating frequency[1] notes that "studies using whole-body calorimetry and doubly-labelled water to assess total 24 h energy expenditure find no difference between nibbling and gorging. Finally, with the exception of a single study, there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency. We conclude that any effects of meal pattern on the regulation of body weight are likely to be mediated through effects on the food intake side of the energy balance equation".[1] A review article conducted assessing 179 abstracts (of which 10 studies were deemed relevant to assess meal frequency and weight loss interactions) found no significant relation between meal frequency and weight loss, albeit calling for more long-term evidence.[2] These results are found in other review articles on the subject matter.[3][4]

Various individual interventions that modify meal frequency while keeping calories static find that there is no difference in metabolic rate (24 hour energy expenditure) between the two groups[5][6] and that there are no changes in weight loss at the end of the trial periods.[7][8] When calories are dropped significantly, metabolic rate declines slightly but overall declines based on calories and not meal frequency.[8]

One recently published paper actually finds the opposite, and that when comparing 3 meals against 14 meals over a period of 36 hours in a metabolic chamber in healthy males, that there were no significant differences in total energy expenditure and a slight increase in resting energy expenditure in the lower frequency group.[9]

Increased eating frequency and muscle gain

Not too many studies look at increased meal frequency and body weight gain, but the limited evidence at this moment (this section, and the epidemiology section later on) indicate that the seen weight gain is due to caloric intake rather than frequency.[10]


Effects of fasting on Metabolic Rate

The other side of the equation for the 'keep the metabolic fire stoked' implies that the metabolic rate can become depressed during periods of 'not eating'.

Short periods of fasting

After 36 hours of fasting, an increase in metabolic rate is seen (and does not change further when measured at 72 hours).[11] Adrenaline was found to be increased at 72 hours (but not 36)[11] and when measured at 48 hours adrenaline seems to induce a larger amount of heat production (thermogenesis).[12]

Intentional Fasting

In nonobese humans, Alternate Day Fasting (not eating every other day) does not result in a decrease in metabolic rate after 22 days (when instructed to eat twice as much food on days where they can eat, to compensate).[13]

Studies undertaken during the Ramadan also note an apparent lack of a difference in overall metabolic parameters between fasters and non-fasters.[14][15] Although some studies (most notably those in unhealth persons) show limited health benefits with Ramadan fasting if food intake is kept relatively stable[16][17] although it seems variable.[18][19] While metabolic rate has not been investigated much per se, it doesn't seem to change to a significant degree.


Possible reasons / Harmony of Data

Epidemiological research

Large scale survey research does tend to show a correlation between eating frequency and obesity, with the 'nibbling' approach inversely correlated with BMI (fat people seem to eat less often, thin people tend to eat more frequently).[1][20][21] These studies do not look at muscle mass per se, but at BMI; there does seem to be a trend that more meals per day increases body weight and BMI. There is limited counter-evidence, and is confounded with high activity levels.[22]

Additionally, the ISSN's stance on meal frequency[23] notes multiple observational studies[24] that do not suggest that eating frequency affects weight loss (on a fundamental level). Of interest are a few that suggest a relation, but the correlation is eliminated once confounding factors such as smoking, drinking, and stress are controlled for; indicating that they may be the causative factor(s).[25][26]

Additionally, eating frequency is positively correlated with overall caloric intake.[26][27]

Thermic Effect of food

The thermic effect of food (the energy required to digest a food, in order to get the calories from the food) is seen by some researchers as an important long-term control point for obesity.[28][29]

Erratic eating schedules, regardless of frequency, seem to be associated with a reduced thermic effect of food.[30][31]

Exercise

Exercise has been suggested to be a confounding variable in the epidemiological research[27][32] due to both acute energy expenditure and due to exercise's ability to suppress appetite.

Survey Research Summary

In Sum; Survey research appears to show that there is a indirect relationship between meal frequency and weight gain which may be due to increased calories overall. A lesser meal frequency may be associated with lower BMI (at the same caloric level) due to exercise.

There is not too much evidence to suggest that meal frequency per se does anything good or bad for the metabolic rate, but that is is just an epidemiological indicator of other habits which do influence metabolic rate and weight changes.

Other Notables

Higher frequency of meal consumption may be beneficial for preserving muscle tissue. When comparing 3 meals against 14 meals per day (an extreme case), it was found that despite the same amount of calories and no difference in metabolic rate that the low-frequency group had a higher protein oxidation rate (106.9±7.1 vs. 90.6±4.3 g/d) or 17% higher protein oxidation rates compared to 14 meals a day.[9] However, an intervention in obese individuals noted that when there were four meals eaten daily that there are no differences in weight loss when consuming 80% of your casein at one meal relative to 'pulsing' whey in four meals at 25%, with the casein group outperforming the whey group in the final length of the trial on nitrogen retention.[33] This latter study noted higher protein oxidation and synthesis rates with whey, but a trend towards nitrogen retention (muscle mass retention) with casein.

Theoretically possible that more meals daily improves nitrogen retention, but the one recent human study on the matter suggests that remaining in a post-prandial state is more important (which can be done with slower absorbing proteins or more frequency, or both)

One of the aforementioned studies did note better glycemic control, as assessed by glucose AUC, in the 3 meals daily group relative to 14 meals.[9] This has been seen before when comparing 2 meals per day against 12, where the lower frequency appears to have better glycemic control.[34]

Lower frequency meals (3) relative to higher frequency meals (14), when the overall daily calories are the same, appear to be more satiating and produce less hunger.[9]

Tags: metabolism, fasting, meal frequency

  1. Bellisle F, McDevitt R, Prentice AM. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. (1997)
  2. Palmer MA, Capra S, Baines SK. Association between eating frequency, weight, and health. Nutr Rev. (2009)
  3. Leidy HJ, Campbell WW. The effect of eating frequency on appetite control and food intake: brief synopsis of controlled feeding studies. J Nutr. (2011)
  4. Taylor MA, Garrow JS. Compared with nibbling, neither gorging nor a morning fast affect short-term energy balance in obese patients in a chamber calorimeter. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. (2001)
  5. Verboeket-van de Venne WP, Westerterp KR. Influence of the feeding frequency on nutrient utilization in man: consequences for energy metabolism. Eur J Clin Nutr. (1991)
  6. Smeets AJ, Westerterp-Plantenga MS. Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the lower range of meal frequency. Br J Nutr. (2008)
  7. Cameron JD, Cyr MJ, Doucet E. 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)
  8. Verboeket-van de Venne WP, Westerterp KR. Frequency of feeding, weight reduction and energy metabolism. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. (1993)
  9. Munsters MJ, Saris WH. Effects of meal frequency on metabolic profiles and substrate partitioning in lean healthy males. PLoS One. (2012)
  10. Pearcey SM, de Castro JM. Food intake and meal patterns of weight-stable and weight-gaining persons. Am J Clin Nutr. (2002)
  11. Webber J, Macdonald IA. The cardiovascular, metabolic and hormonal changes accompanying acute starvation in men and women. Br J Nutr. (1994)
  12. Mansell PI, Fellows IW, Macdonald IA. Enhanced thermogenic response to epinephrine after 48-h starvation in humans. Am J Physiol. (1990)
  13. Heilbronn LK, et al. Alternate-day fasting in nonobese subjects: effects on body weight, body composition, and energy metabolism. Am J Clin Nutr. (2005)
  14. Zerguini Y, et al. Influence of Ramadan fasting on physiological and performance variables in football players: summary of the F-MARC 2006 Ramadan fasting study. J Sports Sci. (2008)
  15. Chennaoui M, et al. Effects of Ramadan fasting on physical performance and metabolic, hormonal, and inflammatory parameters in middle-distance runners. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. (2009)
  16. Sadiya A, et al. Effect of Ramadan fasting on metabolic markers, body composition, and dietary intake in Emiratis of Ajman (UAE) with metabolic syndrome. Diabetes Metab Syndr Obes. (2011)
  17. Shariatpanahi ZV, et al. Effect of Ramadan fasting on some indices of insulin resistance and components of the metabolic syndrome in healthy male adults. Br J Nutr. (2008)
  18. Yarahmadi Sh, et al. Metabolic and clinical effects of Ramadan fasting in patients with type II diabetes. J Coll Physicians Surg Pak. (2003)
  19. Bouguerra R, et al. {Metabolic effects of the month of Ramadan fasting on type 2 diabetes}. East Mediterr Health J. (2003)
  20. Food intake patterns and body mass index in observational studies
  21. Bertéus Forslund H, et al. Meal patterns and obesity in Swedish women-a simple instrument describing usual meal types, frequency and temporal distribution. Eur J Clin Nutr. (2002)
  22. Drummond SE, et al. Evidence that eating frequency is inversely related to body weight status in male, but not female, non-obese adults reporting valid dietary intakes. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. (1998)
  23. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: meal frequency
  24. Observational Studies Refuting the Effectiveness of Increased Meal Frequency on Weight loss/Fat loss
  25. Titan SM, et al. Frequency of eating and concentrations of serum cholesterol in the Norfolk population of the European prospective investigation into cancer (EPIC-Norfolk): cross sectional study. BMJ. (2001)
  26. Howarth NC, et al. Eating patterns and dietary composition in relation to BMI in younger and older adults. Int J Obes (Lond). (2007)
  27. Duval K, et al. Physical activity is a confounding factor of the relation between eating frequency and body composition. Am J Clin Nutr. (2008)
  28. Weinsier RL, et al. Metabolic predictors of obesity. Contribution of resting energy expenditure, thermic effect of food, and fuel utilization to four-year weight gain of post-obese and never-obese women. J Clin Invest. (1995)
  29. Saris WH. Fit, fat and fat free: the metabolic aspects of weight control. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. (1998)
  30. Farshchi HR, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. Decreased thermic effect of food after an irregular compared with a regular meal pattern in healthy lean women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. (2004)
  31. Farshchi HR, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. Beneficial metabolic effects of regular meal frequency on dietary thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity, and fasting lipid profiles in healthy obese women. Am J Clin Nutr. (2005)
  32. Yannakoulia M, et al. Association of eating frequency with body fatness in pre- and postmenopausal women. Obesity (Silver Spring). (2007)
  33. Adechian S, et al. Protein feeding pattern, casein feeding or milk soluble protein feeding did not change the evolution of body composition during a short-term weight loss program. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. (2012)
  34. Solomon TP, et al. The effect of feeding frequency on insulin and ghrelin responses in human subjects. Br J Nutr. (2008)

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