I am a student of logic. Mathematics taught me a great deal about starting from basics and constructing the complex using small logical steps. Mathematics has a nice built-in crap-detection system as well. Each step can be traced backward and checked for correctness all the way down to the foundation if necessary. If someone used bad logic, it’s easy to find. No one trusts an idea that hasn’t been built upon smaller, proven steps.

The same is not true of the diet and exercise industry. In this world, it’s acceptable to have an idea, come up with another idea as to why it should work and sell both ideas without having tested either, without even having proof of either. There’s no foundation and no experiment to assert the validity. Many of the accepted truths we teach and practice fall within this category, and even when the idea is refuted by solid fact, it often persists out of habit.

What makes it so hard to let go? It’s the logic behind it. For most of us, the idea “if A implies B then B must be true” is very convincing, and if the person talks mostly about B, we forget to check if A is true. This is good logic put atop poor facts and it happens every day. And it’s so damn convincing that even those of us formally trained to recognize it often don’t. This is why research rules science and not intuition or the that-makes-sense acceptance that gets afforded to what are really half-baked ideas in the diet and exercise realm. In the real world, there needs to be proof that the idea is based on facts and testing to ensure the idea works.

In this series, I want to pick apart a few widely believed ideas where the logic doesn’t apply for one reason or another. I’ll start with my favorite that I hope to kill one of these days.

The Idea

Eating smaller more frequent meals increases metabolism and causes the body to burn more fat.

The Logic

If the body has to wait too long between meals, it suddenly thinks it’s starving and begins to store fat, but if it feels adequately fueled, it will release fat and those extra pounds melt away.

The Reality

The reality is simple. No matter how many meals the body gets through the day or how tightly spaced those meals, what matters for fat loss is the total calories consumed. Eat two meals or eat ten, it doesn’t matter—the fat won’t come off any faster.

I know you’ve probably heard the mini-meal hypothesis repeated enough times to make it tantamount to fact and I was once sold on the idea. It’s in the magazines, right? There must be something to it. Even several prominent nutrition certifications teach it as fact. When I searched the last 50 years of scientific literature, I found about seven studies that make that conclusion1-7 (there are two more from the last five years as well8, 9). For several years, I saw many of these studies cited over and over again and I repeated the mantra of mini-meals: eat less more often and the fat melts away.

Then I read the published research that I had been citing. I was suddenly caught in a familiar situation—a relationship where the other person is perfect until you get to know them intimately and then the good times end. So it was with my mini-meal enchantment.

When I sat down and read the studies I noticed a big problem. Four of the studies came from the 50s, 60s and early 70s and seemed poorly controlled by researchers1-4. In none of the other five did the researchers control calories5-9 but yet they still came to the conclusion that eating more frequent meals increases metabolism and aids in losing weight and fat loss. From their work, they could not know if people unconsciously ate fewer calories when eating multiple meals or if eating frequently increased metabolism. I dug deeper.

None of the studies measured changes in daily calories as the participants moved from three squares to six or more minis and I wanted studies that did. When I went through the research, I found 29 studies where researchers tested every feasible number of meals, from 1 to 10 per day, ensuring that daily calories remained the same regardless of the number of meals10-38. In all 29 studies, the result was the same: the number of meals eaten per day didn’t matter for fat or weight loss, only the calories did.

They even locked people in boxes called whole-body calorimeters to get precise measurements of metabolism to find a difference between eating a few big meals and many small meals. Again, no change in metabolism, energy expenditure or fat metabolism. The number of meals per day didn’t even affect what type of weight the participants lost—all of them lost the same amount of weight and the same amount of fat regardless of meal frequency. They tested about everything you can imagine in those studies with no effect. Some researches even went back and reassessed previous studies and looked at the food journal data that was ignored when the original researchers made their conclusions. All the participants that lost weight with mini-meals did so because they inadvertently cut calories.

Where’d the logic go bad? The logic, arguably, is okay. It’s the premise that’s flawed. The body does not trigger a hormonal cascade to signal possible starvation if it goes a few hours, or even several hours without eating. The body copes well with long spans of no food. The signals triggered by starvation—the ones that supposedly kick in after only a couple hours of not eating—take roughly three or four days of very low calories to activate39-48. They will not activate in two hours, or three or eight. The entire premise from which this idea is built is wrong.

A second place the logic goes wrong is with the romanticized idea that the body has some latent desire to be skinny when it’s happy. Give it all the food it craves and it will reward you by shedding the fat. The body doesn’t work that way. It turns out that longer stretches between meals makes the body release more fat to be burned as fuel27, 28, 37, 49, 51. What the body wants is to use fat if there’s no food coming in and store fat when there’s too much food. Such routine frequent feedings actually slows resting metabolism50 and lowers another component of metabolism called the thermic effect of food51-54.

There’s not much upside to mini meals when dieting and the downside of a slower metabolism is not enticing either, but for the average person, mini-meals are a pain. Granted, this is Elite, and you’re reading this because you’re willing to make the sacrifices and accept the challenges of being extra-ordinary, but for those of you who train others who might not be on the path to exceptional, telling them they must eat every few hours—as I’ve heard and read from trainers countless times—can set them up for failure. In the studies using multiple meals, more people quit because of having to eat too often rather than not enough. They found eating many meals inconvenient, and this despite having all their meals made and delivered to them by the people conducting the study30, 31, 33.

I’m not saying eating frequently isn’t without its uses. If you’re trying to create a long-lasting anabolic environment, then meal frequency can be very important. Many of these studies also showed the importance of eating on a schedule: eating at the same time each day increases insulin sensitivity55, and again, if you want a peak anabolic environment, you want increased insulin sensitivity. Multi-mini meals can also be good for hunger control56, 57, if hunger control is a problem. But for fat loss, it’s not logical; it’s senseless.

  1. Wu H, Wu DY.  Influence of feeding schedule on nitrogen utilization and excretion.  Proc Soc Exp Biol Med.  1950;74:78-82.
  2. Cohn C.  Meal-eating, nibbling, and body metabolism.  J Am Diet Assoc. 1961 May;38:433-6.
  3. Gwinup G, Kruger FA, Hamwi GJ.  Metabolic effects of gorging versus nibbling.  Ohio State Med J. 1964 Jul;60:663-6.
  4. Bray GA.  Lipogenesis in human adipose tissue: some effects of nibbling and gorging.  J Clin Invest. 1972 Mar;51(3):537-48.
  5. LeBlanc J, Mercier I, Nadeau A.  Components of postprandial thermogenesis in relation to meal frequency in humans.  Can J Physiol Pharmacol. 1993 Dec;71(12):879-83.
  6. Jenkins DJ, Wolever TM, Vuksan V, Brighenti F, Cunnane SC, Rao AV, Jenkins AL, Buckley G, Patten R, Singer W, et al.  Nibbling versus gorging: metabolic advantages of increased meal frequency.  N Engl J Med. 1989 Oct 5;321(14):929-34.
  7. Antoine JM, Rohr R, Gagey MJ, Bleyer RE, Debry G.  Feeding frequency and nitrogen balance in weight-reducing obese women.  Hum Nutr Clin Nutr. 1984 Jan;38(1):31-8.
  8. Ekmekcioglu C, Touitou Y. Chronobiological aspects of food intake and metabolism and their relevance on energy balance and weight regulation. Obes Rev. 2010 Jan 27.
  9. Koletzko B, Toschke AM. Meal patterns and frequencies: do they affect body weight in children and adolescents? Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2010 Feb;50(2):100-5.
  10. Kinabo JL, Durnin JV.  Effect of meal frequency on the thermic effect of food in women.  Eur J Clin Nutr. 1990 May;44(5):389-95.
  11. 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 Apr;25(4):519-28.
  12. Bellisle F, McDevitt R, Prentice AM.  Meal frequency and energy balance.  Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70. Review.
  13. Holmback U, Lowden A, Akerfeldt T, Lennernas M, Hambraeus L, Forslund J, Akerstedt T, Stridsberg M, Forslund A.  The human body may buffer small differences in meal size and timing during a 24-h wake period provided energy balance is maintained.  J Nutr. 2003 Sep;133(9):2748-55.
  14. Jones PJ, Namchuk GL, Pederson RA.  Meal frequency influences circulating hormone levels but not lipogenesis rates in humans.  Metabolism. 1995 Feb;44(2):218-23.
  15. Arnold L, Ball M, Mann J.  Metabolic effects of alterations in meal frequency in hypercholesterolaemic individuals.  Atherosclerosis. 1994 Aug;108(2):167-74.
  16. Murphy MC, Chapman C, Lovegrove JA, Isherwood SG, Morgan LM, Wright JW, Williams CM.  Meal frequency; does it determine postprandial lipaemia?  Eur J Clin Nutr. 1996 Aug;50(8):491-7.
  17. Wolfram G, Kirchgessner M, Muller HL, Hollomey S.  Thermogenesis in humans after varying meal time frequency  Ann Nutr Metab. 1987;31(2):88-97.
  18. Mann J.  Meal frequency and plasma lipids and lipoproteins.  Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S83-90. Review.
  19. Verboeket-van de Venne WP, Westerterp KR.  Frequency of feeding, weight reduction and energy metabolism.  Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1993 Jan;17(1):31-6.
  20. Dallosso HM, Murgatroyd PR, James WP.  Feeding frequency and energy balance in adult males.  Hum Nutr Clin Nutr. 1982;36C(1):25-39.
  21. Hill JO, Anderson JC, Lin D, Yakubu F.  Effects of meal frequency on energy utilization in rats.  Am J Physiol. 1988 Oct;255(4 Pt 2):R616-21.
  22. Garrow JS, Durrant M, Blaza S, Wilkins D, Royston P, Sunkin S.  The effect of meal frequency and protein concentration on the composition of the weight lost by obese subjects.  Br J Nutr. 1981 Jan;45(1):5-15.
  23. Arnold L, Mann JI, Ball MJ.  Metabolic effects of alterations in meal frequency in type 2 diabetes.  Diabetes Care. 1997 Nov;20(11):1651-4.
  24. Rashidi MR, Mahboob S, Sattarivand R.  Effects of nibbling and gorging on lipid profiles, blood glucose and insulin levels in healthy subjects.  Saudi Med J. 2003 Sep;24(9):945-8.
  25. Baker N, Palmquist DL, Learn DB.  Equally rapid activation of lipogenesis in nibbling and gorging mice.  J Lipid Res. 1976 Sep;17(5):527-35.
  26. Baker N, Huebotter RJ.  Lipogenic activation after nibbling and gorging in mice.  J Lipid Res. 1973 Jan;14(1):87-94.
  27. Sensi S, Capani F.  Chronobiological aspects of weight loss in obesity: effects of different meal timing regimens.  Chronobiol Int. 1987;4(2):251-61.
  28. 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 Mar;45(3):161-9.
  29. Holmback U, Lowden A, Akerfeldt T, Lennernas M, Hambraeus L, Forslund J, Akerstedt T, Stridsberg M, Forslund A.  The human body may buffer small differences in meal size and timing during a 24-h wake period provided energy balance is maintained.  J Nutr. 2003 Sep;133(9):2748-55.
  30. [No authors listed]  Effects of meal frequency during weight reduction.  Nutr Rev. 1972 Jul;30(7):158-62. Review.
  31. Young CM, Hutter LF, Scanlan SS, Rand CE, Lutwak L, Simko V.  Metabolic effects of meal frequency on normal young men.  J Am Diet Assoc. 1972 Oct;61(4):391-8.
  32. Finkelstein B, Fryer BA.  Meal frequency and weight reduction of young women.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1971 Apr;24(4):465-8.
  33. Young CM, Scanlan SS, Topping CM, Simko V, Lutwak L.  Frequency of feeding, weight reduction, and body composition.  J Am Diet Assoc. 1971 Nov;59(5):466-72.
  34. Wadhwa PS, Young EA, Schmidt K, Elson CE, Pringle DJ.  Metabolic consequences of feeding frequency in man.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1973 Aug;26(8):823-30.
  35. Romsos DR, Miller ER, Leveille GA.  Influence of feeding frequency on body weight and glucose tolerance in the pig.  Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1978 Apr;157(4):528-30.
  36. Bortz W, Wroldsen A, Issekutz B, Rodahl K.  Weight loss and frequency of feeding.  N Engl J Med. 1966;274:376-379.
  37. Swindells YE, Holmes SA, Robinson MF.  The metabolic response of young women to changes in the frequency of meals.  Br J Nutr. 1968;22(4):667-680.
  38. Wu H, Wu DY.  Influence of feeding schedule on nitrogen utilization and excretion.  Proc Soc Exp Biol Med.  1950;74:78-82.
  39. Chomard P, Vernhes G, Autissier N, Debry G.  Serum concentrations of total and free thyroid hormones in moderately obese women during a six-week slimming cure.  Eur J Clin Nutr. 1988 Apr;42(4):285-93.
  40. Wisse BE, Campfield LA, Marliss EB, Morais JA, Tenenbaum R, Gougeon R.  Effect of prolonged moderate and severe energy restriction and refeeding on plasma leptin concentrations in obese women.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3):321-30.
  41. Miyawaki T, Masuzaki H, Ogawa Y, Hosoda K, Nishimura H, Azuma N, Sugawara A, Masuda I, Murata M, Matsuo T, Hayashi T, Inoue G, Yoshimasa Y, Nakao K.  Clinical implications of leptin and its potential humoral regulators in long-term low-calorie diet therapy for obese humans.  Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002 Jul;56(7):593-600.
  42. Racette SB, Kohrt WM, Landt M, Holloszy JO.  Response of serum leptin concentrations to 7 d of energy restriction in centrally obese African Americans with impaired or diabetic glucose tolerance.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1997 Jul;66(1):33-7.
  43. Samuels MH, Kramer P.  Differential effects of short-term fasting on pulsatile thyrotropin, gonadotropin, and alpha-subunit secretion in healthy men--a clinical research center study.  J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1996 Jan;81(1):32-6.
  44. Adami S, Ferrari M, Galvanini G, Cominacini L, Bruni F, Pelloso M, Lo Cascio V.  Serum thyroid hormone concentrations and weight loss relationships in eight obese women during semistarvation.  J Endocrinol Invest. 1979 Jul-Sep;2(3):271-4.
  45. Garrel DR, Todd KS, Pugeat MM, Calloway DH.  Hormonal changes in normal men under marginally negative energy balance.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1984 Jun;39(6):930-6.
  46. Bergendahl M, Vance ML, Iranmanesh A, Thorner MO, Veldhuis JD.  Fasting as a metabolic stress paradigm selectively amplifies cortisol secretory burst mass and delays the time of maximal nyctohemeral cortisol concentrations in healthy men.  J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1996 Feb;81(2):692-9.
  47. Cameron JL, Weltzin TE, McConaha C, Helmreich DL, Kaye WH.  Slowing of pulsatile luteinizing hormone secretion in men after forty-eight hours of fasting.  J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1991 Jul;73(1):35-41.
  48. Keim NL, Stern JS, Havel PJ.  Relation between circulating leptin concentrations and appetite during a prolonged, moderate energy deficit in women.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1998 Oct;68(4):794-801.
  49. Jones PJ, Leitch CA, Pederson RA.  Meal-frequency effects on plasma hormone concentrations and cholesterol synthesis in humans.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1993 Jun;57(6):868-74.
  50. Westerterp-Plantenga MS, Goris AH, Meijer EP, Westerterp KR.  Habitual meal frequency in relation to resting and activity-induced energy expenditure in human subjects: the role of fat-free mass.  Br J Nutr. 2003 Sep;90(3):643-9.
  51. Verboeket-van de Venne WP, Westerterp KR, Kester AD.  Effect of the pattern of food intake on human energy metabolism.  Br J Nutr. 1993 Jul;70(1):103-15.
  52. Molnar D.  The effect of meal frequency on postprandial thermogenesis in obese children.  Padiatr Padol. 1992;27(6):177-81.
  53. Tai MM, Castillo P, Pi-Sunyer FX.  Meal size and frequency: effect on the thermic effect of food.  Am J Clin Nutr. 1991 Nov;54(5):783-7.
  54. Young JC.  Meal size and frequency: effect on potentiation of the thermal effect of food by prior exercise.  Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1995;70(5):437-41.
  55. Farshchi HR, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA.  Regular meal frequency creates more appropriate insulin sensitivity and lipid profiles compared with irregular meal frequency in healthy lean women.  Eur J Clin Nutr. 2004 Jul;58(7):1071-7.
  56. Speechly DP, Rogers GG, Buffenstein R.  Acute appetite reduction associated with an increased frequency of eating in obese males.  Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1999 Nov;23(11):1151-9.
  57. Speechly DP, Buffenstein R.  Greater appetite control associated with an increased frequency of eating in lean males.  Appetite. 1999 Dec;33(3):285-97.