Does Meal Frequency Matter for Meeting Your Health and Fitness Goals?

Choosing the right health and nutrition plan for you

By Michael Ormsbee, PhDFlorida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Those in the nutrition industry often advise people to eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. Does this really lead to improved body composition, though? Professor Ormsbee weighs out the evidence.

Woman eating a postworkout meal
Since consuming three versus six meals per day doesn’t really seem to matter, meal frequency is usually over-emphasized. Photo By SUPREEYA-ANON / Shutterstock

Is Nutrient Timing Necessary?

People who are interested in fat loss often worry about meal frequency, which is how often they should eat. Another area of confusion is nutrient timing—the frequency at which they eat before, during, and after workouts

“I’ll often see a big pre-workout fuel-up, a sports drink during exercise, and then rushing home after the workout to eat again even though they’re still stuffed from all that food, and they only worked out for 45 minutes,” Professor Ormsbee said. “This is simply too much.” 

For most people, some light food to fuel an intense workout and sipping water during the workout would be more appropriate. Then, they could make sure the next appropriate meal is filled with lean proteins, healthy vegetables, fruit, and some whole grains, but they do not need to worry about eating immediately after their workout. 

Meal Frequency

How many meals should you eat per day? The information is all over the place. Some suggest three meals, some suggest six, and some even suggest numbers below or above these recommendations. 

“A study that I helped with a few years back investigated whether a high protein diet, which was 35% protein consumed in either three or six meals per day, versus a standard diet of three meals a day—15% protein—would improve body composition and metabolism in overweight individuals,” Professor Ormsbee said.

To determine what improved body composition would look like, they measured total body fat, abdominal fat, lean body mass, post-meal thermogenesis or the increase in metabolism following a meal, and leptin production. Leptin is a hormone that regulates hunger.

They found that total body fat and abdominal fat significantly decreased in both high protein groups. Lean body mass, post-meal thermogenesis, and leptin increased when high protein meals were eaten six times per day. 

Thus, the study suggests that by increasing protein and eating more frequently, you can improve your body composition, improve satiety, and boost metabolism. However, keep in mind that the population in this group was overweight. These results may not carry over to other populations.

Overall, research implies that if it’s not high in protein, consuming three versus six meals per day doesn’t really seem to matter. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reported that as long as we eat the right foods in the right amounts, meal frequency seems to be a matter of personal preference more than anything else. 

“For me, I’ve always been a six meals per day person,” Professor Ormsbee said. “I started this just because I was hungry, and I was always running from sport to sport. I know plenty of super fit people who practice this strategy. But I also know people who have excellent body composition who don’t like being bothered by eating so much.” 

Making Sense of Contradictions

Evidence, and good research supports both arguments. With all this contradicting information, what do you do?

Professor Ormsbee suggests trying both to see what works best for you, keeping an open mind. Nutrition is very individualized, so one script for what to eat is not appropriate for everybody. 

There are a few guidelines, but they can be adapted. The bottom line with meal frequency is that eating frequently may help with optimizing some aspects of performance, body composition, and health, but it is likely over-emphasized in many people.

Eating frequently may keep you from feeling over-hungry and gorging at the next meal. However, you have to know your own eating patterns and habits to see if it will work for your lifestyle. 

Within reason, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the various aspects of nutrient timing and choices, so long as you’re making positive steps towards achieving your goals. Choose whichever plan works for you and your lifestyle; check with your doctor to make sure it’s good for you, and then stick to it.

Some people become so focused on the nitty-gritty of nutrient timing that they forget about the big picture, which is to improve and optimize your body composition, health, and performance. Focusing too much on meal timing can be stressful. 

The less stressful you can make it, the easier it is to incorporate it into your life. Overall, Professor Ormsbee suggests that you concentrate more on getting adequate carbohydrates, fats, proteins, and micronutrients throughout the day and the habits that you can easily change before moving into advanced nutrient-timing strategies. 

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.