21 April 2020
Meal Frequency – All the things you think you know, but don’t!
When it comes to discussing meal frequency in the evidence-based arena, most of us might assume that the door has been pulled shut. In years past, when the predominant source of physique development material was within MuscleMags and on forums, many would cite the frequent eating behaviour among successful pro bodybuilders as evidence of a superior eating…
When it comes to discussing meal frequency in the evidence-based arena, most of us might assume that the door has been pulled shut. In years past, when the predominant source of physique development material was within MuscleMags and on forums, many would cite the frequent eating behaviour among successful pro bodybuilders as evidence of a superior eating approach over larger, less frequent meals.
In more recent years, as physique athletes began to source their bodybuilding information from peer-reviewed journals and not from newsstands, we were presented with the concept of energy balance. A concept which taught us that the most significant predictor of physique adjustment is not how many times you eat, but how much energy you consume over 24 hours. And thus, whenever meal frequency is discussed among an evidence-valuing demographic the discourse is quickly resolved with the statement “meal frequency doesn’t matter, just eat according to your preferences”. While for the most part this may well be true – and how much you eat is more important than how often you eat– I do think this may be an over-simplification of the impact of meal frequency on body composition.
When looking at the epidemiological research, most studies to date have shown an inverse relationship between eating frequency and fat mass, meaning those with higher levels of body fat typically eat less frequently than those with leaner compositions. Research has also shown that infrequent eating is linked to increased visceral fat, obesity risk, blunted insulin action, and blood lipid abnormalities.
In a recent study among Hispanic college students, infrequent eaters actually consumed fewer calories per day, yet had higher BMI, body fat percentage, and visceral and subcutaneous fat. This finding, although counterintuitive, actually fits with other research demonstrating a positive association between eating frequency and caloric intake, while showing an inverse relationship with measures of body fat. Among the infrequent eaters, they consumed significantly less fibre (6.5 g/day) than frequent eaters, and only 39% of the sample met the recommendations for less than 10% of their calories derived from added sugar, and only 43% met the recommendation for less than 10% of calories derived from saturated fat. Thus, it appears that infrequent eating is also associated with poor food choices.
So why is there such a common theme between infrequent eating and negative health and body composition outcomes, even when consuming fewer calories overall? I have a couple of ideas.
1). Higher eating frequency has been frequently linked with increased satiety measures. This may explain the poorer food choices among infrequent eaters potentially being misguided by hunger, but it doesn’t explain the lower overall consumption of calories.
2). Reduced frequency of eating may result in eating behaviours that resemble binge eating. While it appears that infrequent eaters consume less calories, it is unlikely that they would report binge eating episodes in research studies for fear of disapproval. More frequent unreported binge eating episodes would explain the greater adiposity in infrequent eaters.
3). Infrequent eaters might just be more likely to partake in other unhealthy behaviours. Indeed, most of the infrequent eaters failed to meet recommendations for fibre, sugar and saturated fat intake. It’s very possible that frequent eaters might lead healthier lifestyles, meeting healthy eating and physical activity recommendations more consistently.
What you need to know
To date, the largest meta-analysis (comprising 15 studies) evaluating the impact of meal frequency on body composition showed that increases in eating frequency were associated with reductions in body fat percentage, as well as increases in fat free mass.
Eating less than 3 times per day is associated with increased BMI, body fat percentage, and visceral and subcutaneous fat.
Greater adiposity in infrequent eaters is despite consuming less calories on average than frequent eaters.
Infrequent eating may trigger binge eating behaviour, demonstrated by greater levels of hunger among infrequent eaters, as well as greater levels of visceral fat (common among binge eaters).
Infrequent eating may be accompanied by reduced intake of fibre, and higher intake of calorie dense food options containing high amounts of sugar and saturated fat, contributing to a poorer quality diet overall.
Infrequent eaters may be at more risk of engaging in other unhealthy behaviours.
Eat “as frequently as you like” to a point, between 3-6 is probably your safe range. 5-6 is likely better than 3-4 considering the current body of research.
Ma Y, Bertone ER, Stanek EJ, Reed GW, Hebert JR, Cohen NL, Merriam PA, Ockene IS. Association between eating patterns and obesity in a free-living US adult population. Am J Epidemiol. 2003;158(1):85–92.
Pearcey SM, de Castro JM. Food intake and meal patterns of weight-stable and weight-gaining persons. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002;76(1):107–12.
Zerva A, Nassis GP, Krekoukia M, Psarra G, Sidossis LS. Effect of eating frequency on body composition in 9-11-year-old children. Int J Sports Med. 2007;28(3):265–70.
Schoenfeld BJ, Aragon AA, Krieger JW. Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis. Nutr Rev. 2015;73(2):69–82. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuu017
House BT, Shearrer GE, Miller SJ, Pasch KE, Goran MI, Davis JN. Increased eating frequency linked to decreased obesity and improved metabolic outcomes. Int J Obes. 2015;39(1):136–41.
House BT, Cook LT, Gyllenhammer LE, Schraw JM, Goran MI, Spruijt-Metz D, Weigensberg MJ, Davis JN. Meal skipping linked to increased visceral adipose tissue and triglycerides in overweight minority youth. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013;
Ritchie LD. Less frequent eating predicts greater BMI and waist circumference in female adolescents. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;95(2):290–6.
Franko DL, Striegel-Moore RH, Thompson D, Affenito SG, Schreiber GB, Daniels SR, Crawford PB. The relationship between meal frequency and body mass index in black and white adolescent girls: more is less. Int J Obes. 2008;32(1):23–9.
Jennings A, Cassidy A, van Sluijs EM, Griffin SJ, Welch AA. Associations between eating frequency, adiposity, diet, and activity in 9-10 year old healthy-weight and centrally obese children. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2012;20(7):1462–8.
Iwao S, Mori K, Sato Y. Effects of meal frequency on body composition during weight control in boxers. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 1996;6(5):265–72.