6 Meals or 3 | A Researched Based Comparison



6 Meals or 3

I always thought 6 meals was better for fat loss and gaining muscle, right?

There have been several studies (1 2) mentioned by fitness writers lately suggesting that eating more meals per day does not increase your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and therefore there is no benefit from a muscle building or fat loss perspective. Therefore, you may automatically conclude that you should go ahead and eat a larger breakfast, lunch and dinner versus eating six smaller meals with the same total caloric intake if you are trying to change your body composition. 

The following 4 factors were overlooked when coming to that conclusion:

1. Satiety 
By eating more frequently, you may maintain the satisfied 'full' feeling which contributes to how many calories you may consume in one meal. There may be a difference between six and three meals per day with regards to this factor.

2. Insulin levels 
Ingesting a larger amount of food in one sitting can increase insulin levels more than spreading out meals. Insulin plays an important role in weight gain as a sustained increase in insulin levels are directly associated with fat storage.

3. Cortisol Production 
Cortisol is another hormone which can effect fat storage and we would like this factor to be included when deciding the ideal amount of meals to eat per day. Too much cortisol is related with fat storage. 

Note: If you are new to the cortisol hormone discussion we have a more in-depth article here.

4. Maximum Protein Synthesis 
Gaining muscle increases your basal metabolic rate (BMR) as muscle requires more calories to maintain itself than fat does. To gain muscle a goal should be to achieve maximum protein synthesis (MPS), as it can maximize your muscle gaining potential after tearing down muscle tissue through resistance training.

Studies regarding meal frequency and fat loss

Factor Study and Interpretation
Total Daily Energy Expenditure France Bellisle reported in a 2004 issue of the Scandanavian Journal of Nutrition:

The notion [of high meal frequency] has been put into question by the recognition of a high level of dietary underreporting in overweight individuals. In addition, no difference in total daily energy expenditure has been documented as a function of daily meal number. Weight loss is not facilitated by high meal frequency. Snacking in obese subjects is associated with higher energy and fat intake.”

The next line to this study was:
By contrast, in normal-weight people, snacking does not necessarily lead to increased energy intake, while snacks often contain more carbohydrates and less fat than regular meals.

Verdict of the Study 

This study suggests that there are no documented studies of increased daily enery expenditure by increasing meal frequency. 

Total Energy Expenditure M.A. Taylor and J.S. Garrow from the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Kings College in London published an article in the 2001 International Journal of Obesity where they asserted:

 “When [equal amounts of calories] was given as two meals per day or six meals per day there was found to be no significant difference in total energy expenditure.”

Verdict of the Study 

This study also concludes that there is no increase in total daily expenditure by increasing meal frequency. However, it does allude to the fact that you may eat less total fat calories if you eat smaller 'snacks' throughout the day.

Satiety Greater Appetite Control Associated with an Increased Frequency of Eating in Lean Males by D.P. SPEECHLY, R. BUFFENSTEIN
This data suggest that when the nutrient load was spread into equal amounts and consumed evenly through the day in lean healthy males, there was an enhanced control of appetite. This greater control of satiety when consuming smaller multiple meals may possibly be linked to an attenuation in insulin response although clearly both other physical (gastric stretch) and physiological (release of gastric hormones) factors may also be affected by the periodicity of eating.

Verdict of the Study 

Appetite suppression is a key factor in any weight loss goal and to do so requires less temptation. This study examined the relationship of satiety on meal frequency and found that the more times you eat in a day the less you feel like you want to stuff yourself full of calories.

Insulin and Cortisol Nibbling versus Gorging: Metabolic Advantages of Increased Meal Frequency

As compared with the three-meal diet, the nibbling diet reduced fasting serum concentrations of total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B by a mean (±SE) of 8.5±2.5 percent (P<0.02), 13.5±3.4 percent (P<0.01), and 15.1±5.7 percent (P<0.05), respectively. Although the mean blood glucose level and serum concentrations of free fatty acids, 3-hydroxybutyrate, and triglyceride were similar during both diets, during the nibbling diet the mean serum insulin level decreased by 27.9±6.3 percent (P<0.01) and the mean 24-hour urinary C-peptide output decreased by 20.2 ±5.6 percent (P<0.02). In addition, the mean 24-hour urinary cortisol excretion was lower by 17.3±5.9 percent (P<0.05) at the end of the nibbling diet than at the end of the three-meal diet. The blood glucose, serum insulin, and C-peptide responses to a standardized breakfast and the results of an intravenous glucose-tolerance test conducted at the end of each diet were similar. 

We conclude that in addition to the amount and type of food eaten, the frequency of meals may be an important determinant of fasting serum lipid levels, possibly in relation to changes in insulin secretion. (N Engl J Med 1989; 321:929–34.)

Verdict of the Study 

While the number of pariticipants was low; it did examine the effects of multiple meals versus bigger meals less often. The most important point to take away from this study was that both levels of serum insulin and urinary cortisol were lower in the multiple meal group. If you are unsure what this means, it's ok, keep reading.

Maximum Protein 
What is the ideal amount of protein and how often should I take it to increase muscle mass? This is also known as Maximum Protein Synthesis (MPS) A great slideshow presentation was conducted here.

General recommendations? 
Example: 200 lb male athlete/bodybuilder 5 meals per day (one meal every 4-6 hours) 
Goal: 4g/leu per meal (0.045g leu/kg BW/meal) 
Meal protein sources: 
2 meals: whey (33g protein at each meal)
2 meals: chicken (54g protein at each meal) 
1 meal: beef (51g protein) Total protein intake: 225g/day 3-4g leu supplement consumed between meals may optimize MPS response.

Verdict of Study 

An increase in the amount of meals per day up to 5 or 6 with a higher protein content will maximize MPS and increase the potential for muscle growth.

Fat Oxidation and Satiety  This study examined the effects of 3 meals per day VS 2 meals per day
- No effects on total daily energy expenditure were found by increasing meal frequency. 

Observations from the latter
study and the present study indicate that a low meal frequency
could be detrimental because it may reduce fat oxidation, due
to the postponed fat oxidation after a high carbohydrate load,
and promote fat storage due to the lower ability to compensate
for fat intake.
In healthy, normal-weight women, decreasing the inter-meal
interval sustains satiety, particularly over the day, and sustains
fat oxidation, particularly over night. Increasing meal fre-
quency, and thereby decreasing inter-meal frequency, in a
state of energy balance may be a useful tool to prevent large
fluctuations in feelings of satiety and substrate utilisation

Verdict of Study 

An increase in meal frequency showed higher satiety and also fat oxidation. While this study did not examine six meals versus three meals it does provides support for eating more often to increase satiety.


It may be safe to conclude that increasing meal frequency does not increase your total energy expenditure (TEE). You may then assume that TEE and weight loss are directly correlated. This is not the case because other factors may be more strongly correlated to gaining weight such as total daily caloric intake and how you metabolize fat.

Fat storage hormones 

Fat storage hormones such as insulin and a high level of cortisol are associated with increase adipose tissue and eating less frequently. 

Questioning the Experts

It is good to question why the 'experts' suggest a certain recommendation especially when it may be easier to just do the 'easy way' (3 meals per day) but it is clear that eating more meals more often keeps your insulin, cortisol, and satiety levels in check while maximizing protein synthesis to help gain muscle.

NOV 21, 2011 UPDATE: Another meal frequency study has shed more light on the subject and correlates eating less often with being obese. They suggest eating three times per day with two snack meals.