Once again, this myth has its origins in facts. Unfortunately a massive leap has been made somewhere along the way to get us to the point where it’s being recommended to eat 6 or 7 small meals per day to ‘spike’ your metabolism and keep you burning calories at an accelerated rate.
Calorie Expenditure is normally called ‘TDEE’ - Total Daily Energy Expenditure, and is usually said to be made up of 4 different calorie burning ‘areas’: BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis), TEE (Thermic Effect of Exercise) and TEF (Thermic Effect of Food). It’s this last area, TEF, that we are going to look at today.
Eating food burns calories - that’s what the Thermic Effect of Food is, and is not something we are disputing. Digestion takes energy, so every time we eat, we do in turn end up burning more calories to digest what we’ve just eating. The argument (and myth) has somehow followed that we should therefore keep eating frequently in order to keep this increased rate of burning calories.
The problem with this argument, and the generic “eat ~6 small meals every day, once every 3 hours” advice is that TEF isn’t a set rate. The more we eat in one sitting, the more calories we are going to burn off… the rate of calorie burn is related to the amount of calories we have just eaten.
If you eat a small meal, your calorie burn will have a much lower spike than if you eat a much larger meal. What this adds up to, when calories are equated, is an almost-identical calorie burn at the end of the day! It’s all going to even out over the long-term.
Some studies have even suggested that eating smaller meals may lead to an increased energy intake, as we are less likely to feel ‘full’ after a small meal when compared to a big meal. So, it’s not advisable to follow the advice of eating smaller, more frequent meals under the impression that it will lead to you burning more calories overall.
Ultimately, the choice comes down to preference and lifestyle. If you have the time to eat more frequently, and you personally prefer it, then absolutely go for it. However, if you prefer to eat bigger, less frequent meals, or you only have time to eat 2-3 times per day, don’t worry - it will have absolutely no bearing on your ability to lose / maintain your weight.