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The Myth of Multiple Meals
Competition diets are commonly based on the idea that the athlete must eat every two to three hours. When employing this logic, it’s normal for a diet to consist of five or six meals. This has pretty much been status quo in the world of ripped physiques, but much of the reasoning behind this pre-contest ritual should be considered mostly bro science.
Advocates of the five or six meals per day plan insist that this approach is an absolute necessity for weight loss. One of the main arguments for multiple meals is the idea that the metabolism is raised and kept high if multiple meals are consumed daily. You may have even heard that “eating several smaller meals spread evenly during your waking hours will stoke the metabolic fire.” The basic premise of this idea is derived from a misunderstanding about the thermogenic (thermic) effect of food (TEF ), which means the energy (i.e., calories) your body requires to digest, absorb, and dispose of food. Each macronutrient has a specific TEF, but the average is about 10 percent of consumed calories.
It was thought that by eating multiple meals over the course of a day, one would be getting the effects of TEF more often, which in turn would increase metabolic rate. But here’s where the problem lies:
If Scott were eating 3000 calories evenly spread over six meals, that would equate to 500 calories per meal (3000 total calories divided by six meals). Each meal would burn approximately 50 calories due to TEF (10 percent of 500 calories). This would amount to a total of 300 calories (50 calories TEF multiplied by six meals) burned during the six-meal day. However, if Scott ate only three meals with a daily allotment of 3000 calories, each meal would be 1000 calories (3000 total calories divided by three meals), and would contribute 100 calories (10 percent of 1000 calories) to TEF. 100 calories of TEF multiplied by three meals would total 300 calories burned during the three-meal day. Both daily totals for TEF are identical! What dieters need to realize is that if the total daily calories are the same but the number of meals per day are different, the TEF will still be the same. The math confirms it. Unfortunately the bro scientists who did the initial math and insisted that there was a better fat burn with six meals were probably unfamiliar with simple Grade 6 math.
Now, I’m not saying that the “six meals per day plan” should be scrapped in favor of three meals. What I’m saying is that the number of meals per day should not be chosen based on the myth that more meals increases metabolic rate. A good coach will structure meal frequency so that it fits the client’s needs and achieves the weight-loss goal. Factors such as lean body mass, macronutrient split, and client job status (e.g., shift work) are all important things that we take into account with diet design. In 13+ years of dieting clients, we have had clients eat as few as three meals per day and as many as 12 meals per day. Each client is unique.
The take-home message is that a good coach structures a diet plan based on a holistic approach. Not customizing a diet plan to the client as a whole is, in effect, creating a plan that will result in non-compliance and eventually end in failure.
Dan's NO BS approach is exactly what makes him an incredible coach! To read more of his articles, click here!