Does meal frequency promote weight loss

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By Ari Snaevarsson, Features Editor

Meal frequency often gets brought up in weight loss discussions, and I feel diving into some of the misconceptions, giving you a clear cut answer to the title question, would be a nice, informative way to kick off the semester.  Read on to learn the truth of the contribution of meal frequency to any dieting bout.

Matters get confusing when we consider that different protocols have touted the beneficial effects of either extreme.  For a while, people clung to the “eat six small meals a day” philosophy, citing its capacity to “stoke the metabolic furnace/fire” (an interesting, yet completely misguided analogy to human metabolism).  As of late, the intermittent fasting (IF) protocol has been a trendy approach.

But these two work off of entirely opposite, and indeed contrary, premises.  So, does increased meal frequency “stoke the metabolic fire” and promote easier weight loss? Or should we look to planned periods of fasting, effectively compacting one’s meals and mealtimes and utilizing decreased meal frequency?

Calories in vs. calories out

To begin, we must understand the basic premise that weight loss is the byproduct of an energy (caloric) imbalance.  This means we are, on average, taking in fewer calories than we are expending.  Therefore, how much exactly we are expending becomes an important factor in answering this question; this is referred to as energy expenditure (EE), and within the context of a day, it is called total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).  To summarize, it is this number that we are using as our basis for creating the necessary caloric imbalance.  Eat under your TDEE and you lose weight; eat over it and you gain weight.

It gets slightly more complex, although still simple to understand, when we consider the processes that contribute to this TDEE.  Specifically, we are looking at four factors, which I will expand upon below.  After briefly explaining each factor, I will speak to its relation to this broader concept of meal frequency, culminating in the conclusive answer to our major question.

Thermic effect of food (TEF)

TEF refers to the caloric expenditure in enacting all of the processes that turn the initial food product into its ultimate destination in the body.  Here we consider the processes of mastication (chewing), digestion, transportation, absorption, and defecation (among some others).

Assuming one is to eat isocaloric diets (meaning caloric intake is controlled between treatment groups) making use of these approaches, you would theoretically be consuming and metabolizing the same amount of nutrients. Now, the inevitable rebuttal to this that you simply cannot absorb [x] amount of a given nutrient in one sitting is largely sensational and not grounded in science, as I will elucidate.

Firstly, how would our ancient ancestors have ever made use of their nutrients if they had to eat small meals throughout the day? In fact, their diets resembled more closely an IF protocol, consuming large boluses at once and then being unsure of when their next meal would come.

Secondly, and in concert with this previous point, our bodies are highly efficient at allocating nutrients to their appropriate storage destinations or direct use as energy.  This system is marred in cases of human obesity and overweight, but for all intents and purposes, we can say that the same basic premise holds true.  And all of this of course does not even touch on the fact that TEF’s contribution to TDEE is not very large to begin with.

Energy expenditure from exercise (EEx)

This is relatively self-explanatory: this describes the amount of energy an individual expends directly through physical exercise.  The argument has been stated that the act of getting up, preparing, and consuming more meals in a given day increases exercise energy expenditure, thereby contributing to a caloric deficit.  However, these are trivial amounts we are dealing with, and therefore I think we can consider this factor irrelevant.

Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)

A lot of people get hung up on the concept of NEAT.  Surely, it has shown to be an interestingly important factor in the autoregulation of weight loss or gain.  In essence, it encompasses all of the involuntary or subconscious movements of the body throughout the day (i.e. maintaining posture, fidgeting, nail biting, etc.).  Again, its relevance in the realm of weight loss in general certainly merits investigation, but if we refer back to the point on the body’s ability to store nutrients and allocate their destination in the body, I think we have reason to consider this a non-factor.

Basal metabolic rate (BMR)

This is the largest contributor to EE; it is essentially the involuntary caloric expenditure necessary to maintain homeostasis and keep us alive.  So, you can imagine that if studies were to link differences in meal frequency to discernible changes in BMR, we might actually have a story here.

As it turns out, all of the large, credible studies on this unanimously conclude that manipulation of this factor alone does not suffice to alter one’s BMR.  Various studies exist linking meal frequency to biomarkers of obesity-related diseases (biomarkers such as IGF-1, insulin, fasting glucose, leptin, etc.), and these may be pertinent to understanding dietary interventions for treating such diseases, but they do not serve us much good on the grounds of actual, observable weight loss.  This is especially true for those who are not overweight or obese.



In conclusion, I think it is fair to assert that focusing too heavily on meal frequency in constructing one’s diet for weight loss (or gain) is an exercise in futility.  While gurus and diet books alike have been pretty hung up on this concept for years, the literature does not support their claims (at least not to the magnitude of which they preach them).  If you have been putting large emphasis into this for a while now, do not fret.  This only means you now have that much more of your willpower and cognitive energy to funnel into productive means of inciting weight loss (such as eating mindfully or finding meal times that work for your personal oscillations in appetite, etc.).



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Author: Ari Snaevarsson

Ari Snaevarsson '17 is a Health Sciences major and Religious Studies minor, and he is the Features Editor of The Gettysburgian. He competes in bodybuilding and powerlifting and has an immense passion for dissecting the habit psychology at play in people's dieting attempts. Outside of reading and bedroom DJ-ing, he has previously maintained a health/fitness blog that also followed nutrition news, No Fluff Strength.

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