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Does it really matter how often you eat?

Meal frequency and meal timing is an intriguing and highly debatable subject with many different opinions and viewpoints.

The meal habits we develop are often claimed to play a role in our health, body composition, and sports performance.

For example, one conception is that nibblers have higher metabolisms and burn more calories and body fat than hefty eaters, who eat larger but fewer meals a day.

Indeed, an 'on trend' fitness professional would have you believe that you should 'eat six small meals a day to stoke your metabolic furnace' to melt fat and enhance body composition.

On the other hand, we've also heard "eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper'"

Conflicting to say the least!

Meal frequency for general health

Our meal habits are largely determined by cultural and social norms, how they best fit into our lifestyle, and our personal preference and beliefs.

In Ireland, there tends to be a big focus on dinner, around 6pm, when every street in the country becomes desolate of kids as they're called in for dinner. We're also a nation of breakfast skippers or at best, a cup of tea and a slice of toast to start our day.

Whereas in Spain, the main meal of the day is lunch. Their lunch is so big that they even need a snooze after! Of course Spain is famous for their tapas, literally translating to 'little Spanish meals', with lots of snacking in their diet. They are also night owls and eat their dinner between 9pm and midnight. However, it's usually a light affair, such omelette or fish with salad.

So who fairs better for overall health? The Irish as meal gorgers, who eat three larger meals a day? Or the Spanish as nibblers, who eat smaller but more frequent meals?

There is some, albeit very little, observational evidence, to suggest that eating more frequent, smaller meals can lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure in healthy people. However, it should be pointed out that these studies had benefits only in the short-term and there is no hard evidence to suggest that there are any benefits for long-term overall health.

As long as overall food intake throughout the day is the same, then there's no major health benefit of one over the other.

Enjoy a balanced meal each time you eat, including breakfast. Include a combination of carbohydrates, protein, fats and lots of vegetables to provide you with all the nourishment and energy that you need, and you'll be just fine.

There is also no truth to foregoing carbs at night-time or not eating after 6pm. This is one big fat lie. If your overall calorie and macronutrient intake for the day is the same, then it does not matter a bit when you eat them.

Meal frequency to rev our fat burning

If your personal trainer tells you that you MUST eat five or six smaller meals throughout the day in order to raise your metabolism and lose body fat then please hit them somewhere soft, like their head.

Our metabolism is the total amount of chemical processes that happen in our bodies to keep us alive, and how often we eat our food does not increase this. Nor does it increase the amount of calories we burn.

There's no scientific merit to the dogmatic claim that eating more frequent, smaller meals elevates our metabolism.

However, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that eating smaller more frequent meals can help control hunger levels, and in turn, you will eat less food over the day.

If your goal is to improve body composition, how much you eat is the driving factor in determining the outcome. Try eating every two-four hours until satisfied and not stuffed. Make adjustments based on your own preferences. Experiment with eating more or less often, and let how your feel in response to eating be your guide.

Listen to your body's internal hunger cues and tap into your satiety mechanisms. If you're hungry an hour later then perhaps you didn't eat enough at your meal. If you're still stuffed three or four hours later then perhaps you ate too much.

If you have eaten the right amount for fat loss, you should start to feel a little hungry after two hours, but the feeling isn't irresistible. After three hours you should feel like it's time to eat again. If you leave it more than four hours or so, where you get to a stage of hunger that you could eat a horse, then maybe you've let too much time pass between your meals.

This type of ravenous hunger can potentially lead to spur of the moment decisions and poor food choices, which are not conducive towards your fat loss goals.

So there is a time and place for eating smaller more frequent meals. But it has nothing whatsoever to do with your metabolism and is more so a way to help control appetite and suppress feelings of overwhelming hunger.

Nutrient timing for gym gains

Ok, it's not ALL about building muscle, nutrient timing also has important role for increasing performance as well as for recovery. But it's not as important as you would have been previously led to believe.

Even though the science behind post-workout nutrition has evolved over last 20 years, the behaviours of most regarding the 'anabolic window' has not, with many gym goers slamming their shake before the dumbbell from their last bicep curl has even hit the gym floor.

For regular gym goers and most athletes, a solid meal with both protein and carbs two before and two hours after exercise is all you need for optimal performance, recovery, and muscle growth.

The concept that muscular growth is hindered if there's a delay in feeding the muscles with protein directly after training is outdated. Meeting your total overall daily protein and carbohydrate targets seems to be the overriding factor for muscle growth and repair instead of specific timing.

Nutrient timing need only become a greater concern if you train in a fasted state (perhaps first thing in the morning), if you're an endurance athlete training for longer than 2 hours, or if you're an elite athlete training to depletion several times a day.

As for avoiding fats in the post-workout window to maximize restocking of your fuel stores - this is also an invalid and somewhat silly approach.

Again, this is only a concern for those who trained to depletion and are training the same muscles again to exhaustion within 24 hours. Spread your fat intake evenly throughout the day and you'll be just dandy.

If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It

If you've found a balanced meal frequency that works for you and one that leaves you feeling good, then stick with it.

Don't go changing the habits of a lifestyle just because some fitness guru told you to or because of some bogus diet you read about on the internet.

Listen to your body's internal hunger and satiety cues, paying particular attention to how much you are eating and how it makes you feel. Eat until satisfied and not stuffed if you have a body composition goal.

Eat a healthy balanced meal with lots of vegetables, protein, fats, and carbs each time you eat, with the odd treat thrown in occasionally.

Once you are consistent doing this, only then should you become concerned about when you are eating, if at all.

Karen is a nutrition coach and personal trainer, visit her website www.thenutcoach.com or email Karen@thenutcoach.com