Stoking the Metabolic Fire? How Many Meals Should I Eat Per Day?
Does the phrase “Stoking the metabolic fire” mean anything to you? If so, you’re probably like me, who once bought into the idea of thinking that the more times per day I ate, the more fat I would burn.
It’s based on a concept known as the “Thermic Effect of Food”. This refers to the fact that when we eat a meal, our body needs to use energy to break down the food, so the thermic effect of food actually makes up a percentage of calories burn each day (usually around 10%, but that varies depending on what types of food you are eating). So surely, the more times we eat per day, the more calories (energy) we burn, the more of a caloric deficit we create, the more fat we lose, right?
Well, not quite.
Does the Thermic Effect of Food Increase the More Times We Eat?
It turns out the thermic effect of food is roughly proportional to the amount of energy within the food we eat.
Say for example we have two people, each eating 2100 kcal per day. Let’s say John eats 7 meals at 300 kcal per meal, and Tom eats 3 meals at 700 kcal per meal.
Let’s say for example, the thermic effect of food is 10%. (it is roughly around this, but varies depending on the composition of the food)
John will burn an extra 30 kcal per meal as a result of the thermic effect of food. 7 x 30 kcal = 210 kcal.
Tom will burn an extra 70 kcal per meal as a result of the thermic effect of food. 3 x 70 kcal = 210 kcal.
So they both end up with the same energy burned from the thermic effect of food, regardless of the fact that one eats 3 meals per day, and the other eats 7.
What About Fasting For Half the Day and Feasting at Night?
There is also another side to the coin which says that fasting in the morning and only eating one or two larger meals per day is the key to losing fat and maintaining muscle. It seems to be popular with celebrities who are getting into shape for movie roles. People who do this often end up seeing results, but that is more to do with the fact that they end up eating in a caloric deficit as a result.
Let’s go back to John and Tom. John is happy with his current 3 x 700kcal meals per day (although recently he has been having a big meal in the evening sometimes, overshooting his calories for the day, so results are slowing). But Tom has just read an article called “Intermittent fasting: Burn Fat Whilst Feasting Like a King!”, so he decides he is going to switch to getting his 2100 kcal by fasting ‘til 12pm, eating 700kcal at lunch, and then having a huge meal of 1400 kcal at 7pm. He ends up really enjoying this pattern of eating, since he doesn’t tend to be hungry in the morning, doesn’t like cooking more than once per day, and really loves eating a big meal at night. this leads to him staying very consistent with his diet, and therefore gets great results!
However, as you can see this isn’t necessarily due to the pattern eating, but more because it allows him to stick to his caloric needs, consistently, in a way that suits his lifestyle.
So How Many Meals Should You Eat Per Day?
As a general recommendation, eating anywhere from 3–6 times per day would be ideal, but as I’ve hopefully outlined, the most important thing here is that your frequency of meals allows you to hit your recommended intake in a way that suits your lifestyle.
There can be some problem when gong below or above this recommendation.
For example, someone eating only twice per day may end up developing a relationship with food where they’re training themselves to only eat massive meals, and are hungry, irritable and lethargic all day. They are also potentially missing out on the small benefit of activating muscle protein synthesis, when muscle growth is somewhat stimulated as a results of eating protein.
Someone who eats 7 times per day may end up feeling like they have to schedule their life around eating, and ends up having to take tupperware everywhere they go, and develop a relationship where they feel like if they miss a meal, they’ve messed up.
However, some people are quite happy doing an intermittent fasting protocol, where they don’t eat until the afternoon, and get all of their food in in two meals. They may simply not be hungry in the morning, and therefore take advantage of this, and are able to have 2 large meals.
Some people find that they can’t get enough food in in 6 meals, and need to have more, but this is almost exclusively people who have an extremely high energy output, like top level athletes training 2 times per day, and maybe need to consume 4000–5000 kcal per day.
Again, the amount of meals per day is dependant on what eating habit ensures that you meet the requirements in energy intake, macronutrients and micronutrients.
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