Meal Frequency & Energy Balance

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Make sure to eat several times during the day to stoke the metabolic fire. Don’t eat carbs past 7 PM, they turn straight to fat. We’ve all heard these statements regarding meal frequency, but what does the research show? I want to provide you with an objective look on meal frequency and I think by the end of this you’ll leave with a more chill approach to meal frequency and it’s importance.

Stoking the Metabolic Fire

This is still one of the more common myths I hear despite research baring this into the ground. To understand why this is incorrect one must understand how it generated. It really is just one huge misinterpretation of the thermic effect of food (TEF.) Sounds scary, but actually very simple. TEF is the amount of energy your body requires to break down the food you consume. So, say if you eat 2,400 calories, divided into 6 meals, each containing 400 calories, you might expend 50 calories each meal, for a total of 300 calories (this is only an example. There are different thermic effects of certain foods, but that is beyond the scope of this post.) Wow! Burning 50 calories every few hours just from eating? That is stoking the metabolic fire! But what if you eat 2,400 calories in 3 meals. What happens then? Now your 3 meals each contain 800 calories and you’ll expend 100 calories each time you eat, so the total thermic effect is still 300 calories. Think about this like buying a car. If the car cost $30,000 you can pay the dealer 3 times ($10,000) or you can pay him 30 times ($1,000) he’s still going to end up with $30,000 and you still have a car. Your body is the same way. It doesn’t care how it gets its payments as long as the end result (calories) is the same.

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Does eating at night cause instant fat gain?

Not sure where this myth generated, but I am sure it’s incorrect. Knowing the simple concept of energy balance quickly exposes this idea. While metabolism is not a simple math equation, in most cases calories in vs. calories out will determine your weight.

  • Weight gain = calories in > calories out
  • Weight loss = calories in < calories out
  • Weight maintenance = calories in = calories out

Note that I said strictly weight, adjusting your macronutrients can have a big difference on whether his weight is muscle or fat. Learn more about macros here.

Energy balance is simply defined as your expenditure vs. your input. Expenditure includes the obvious physical activity as well as your basal metabolic rate (BMR), TEF and a few other components. While input includes the calories you consume. Think of your body like a bank account and you are constantly making withdraws (expenditure) and deposits (intake.) Like a bank account, the size of your body will be determined by your ratio of withdraws and deposits. A 1-hour cardio session is a large withdrawal, 4 slices of pizza is a large deposit. You get the picture.

So, back to the question at hand. Will eating late at night make you fat? Well, it depends. If those calories contribute to you being in a surplus then yes weight gain will occur. This is NOT due to the calories being consumed at night, but an overall surplus. In contrast, a large meal late at night will not contribute to weight gain if overall the individual is at maintenance or below. Here’s a quick example

175lb. Male with 3,000 calories maintenance

Meal 1- 7AM- 500 calories

Meal 2- 12PM- 500 calories

Meal 3- 5PM- 500 calories

Meal 4- 10PM- 1,5000 calories

Despite the above individual eating 1,500 calories late at night, the moon does not force his body to automatically store that energy as fat. 24-hour nutrient intake is king and there’s no way around this.

Application: Eat When It’s Most Convenient

Using simple thermodynamics and understanding the concept of energy balance will help you clear the fog of many fad diets and nutrition myths. If you enjoy eating 6 times per day, then have at it. Know that this should be based on personal preference and will not affect your results assuming equal food is being consumed. So don’t feel the need to carry around Tupperware everywhere so you can stay in fat-burning mode. For some individuals few (but large) meals seems to control appetite, while for others many (but small) meals controls hunger better. This is an individual preference, but both individuals have to play by the same rules of energy balance. If you’re an athlete trying to gain weight with 3,000+ calories a day it will probably suite you better to eat more frequently due to the sheer volume of food you must consume. If you believe you’re a “hardgainer” I’ve touched on this concept before here. If you’re on relatively low calories, nibbling on 300 calorie meals 6 times per day may work against you by never allowing you to feel satisfied. At the end of the day it comes down to personal preference.

Likewise, when it comes to timing your meals do not be afraid to eat past a given time. These myths have no science behind him and will only complicate the uncomplicated. Make life a little easier and enjoy the process.

Further reading:

Meal Frequency and Energy Balance

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9155494

Snacking and Energy Balance

http://jn.nutrition.org/content/early/2010/12/01/jn.109.114330.full.pdf