Will Eating 5-6 Small Meals Per Day Help Burn Fat?

Written on March 26, 2012, by Eric Cressey

Will Eating 5-6 Small Meals Per Day Help Burn Fat?

Today’s guest nutrition blog comes from former Cressey Performance intern Tyler Simmons.

“It’s best to eat 5 – 7 times a day.”

“Eating every three hours fuels your metabolism.”

“If you skip meals, your body goes into ‘starvation mode,’ you gain fat, and burn muscle for energy.”

Chances are that you’ve probably heard something like the above statements if you’ve read anything about diet or exercise in the last ten years. Many of you (myself included) probably spent a lot of time preparing and eating meals, in the hopes of optimizing fat loss and better muscle gain.

What does the data really show about spacing out your meals? When I started researching the topic of meal frequency in 2010, I assumed there was ample scientific evidence to back up these nearly unanimous claims that smaller, more frequent meals were better than larger, less frequent meals. Boy, was I disappointed.

To my surprise, the scientific literature had some different things to say. My research focused on how changing meal frequency impacts two different things: 1) Metabolic Rate and 2) Weight Loss. What I found was compelling evidence that reduced meal frequency, sometimes known as Intermittent Fasting (IF), could actually help me, so I started an experiment.

In the summer of 2010 I was living in Alaska doing construction and labor, as well as doing off-season training for Track and Field (sprinting, jumping, and lifting). For years I had focused on eating every 2-3 hours, but based on my new findings, I decided to limit all my food intake to an 8-hour window, leaving 16 hours of the day as my fasting portion.

Despite doing fasted, hard labor all day, then lifting, sprinting, and playing basketball, I managed to set records on all my lifts at the end of the summer. Not only was I stronger than ever, but I got leaner too.

Here’s pictures from before and after, about 2 months apart:

Getting lean wasn’t even my main goal; the idea that I could be free from eating every three hours without suffering negative side effects was extremely liberating. No longer was I controlled by arbitrary meal times and tupperware meals in a lunch box. During this summer, I developed the ability to go long periods of time (18-24 hours) without food, and not get tired, cranky, our mentally slow down.

So why didn’t I catabolize my muscles, drop my metabolic rate, and end up looking like skinny-fat Richard Simmons (no relation)?

The Science

The idea that eating several smaller meals is better came from a few pieces of information. The first was because of an association between greater meal frequency and reduced body weight in a couple of epidemiological studies, although this only shows a correlation, not causation. Breakfast eaters are more likely to engage in other health activities, such as exercise, which explains the relationship. In the most comprehensive review of relevant studies, the authors state that any epidemiological evidence for increased meal-frequency is extremely weak and “almost certainly represents an artefact” (1).

The second piece is related to the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF), which is the amount of energy needed to digest and process the food you eat. Fortunately, this is dependent on total quantity of food, not on how it’s spaced, making the distinction irrelevant.

So, now we can see that the supposed benefits from increased meal frequency do not hold up to closer inspection, but why would we want to purposefully wait longer in between meals?

Originally, researchers thought Caloric Restriction (CR) was the bee’s knees. Preliminary research showed that CR slows aging, reduces oxidative damage, and reduces insulin and levels. All good, right? Unfortunately, these benefits come with some nasty trade-offs, including reduced metabolic rate, low energy levels, constant hunger, and low libido, pretty much what you would expect from chronically restricting food intake. These were not happy animals.

Recent research has shown that Intermittent Fasting or reduced meal frequency can convey many of the benefits of CR while avoiding the negative side effects. Some of these benefits include:

Favorable changes to blood lipidsReduced blood pressureDecreased markers of inflammationReduction in oxidative stressIncreased Growth Hormone releaseGreater thermogenesis/elevated metabolic rateImproved fat burningImproved appetite control

Some of these effects may be secondary to the reduction of calories due to improved appetite control, or they may be primary effects of IF, the research is not conclusive on this yet.

One of the most interesting findings was that contrary to conventional wisdom, reduced meal frequency actually causes an increase in thermogenesis (metabolic rate), which is mediated through the increase of catecholamines (stress hormones), such as adrenaline and norepinephrine (1,2). Yep, you read that right: instead of slowing your metabolism down, it speeds it up. Catecholamines also help with the liberation of fatty acids from fat cells, making them available to be burned as energy.

That’s the “why” and the “how” for some of the effects of IF. Whatever the mechanism for it, IF seems to be effective for at least some people, myself included. But before you rush off to go start fasting 16 hours a day, here are some tips and caveats.

Important Considerations

Many people ask me if IF is good or bad, but as with most things, it depends. IF is not appropriate in certain situations. It can be good or bad, depending on who you are (your current health status/lifestyle) and what your goals are. IF is a stressor on the body; one of the primary effects is an increase in stress hormones. If you’re lacking sleep, eating low quality foods, stressed out about your job, and excessively exercising then don’t start an IF protocol. It will backfire and you will end up fat and tired!

Only experiment with an IF program if you are getting 8-9 hours of sleep a night, eating a high quality diet, appropriately recovering from exercise, and don’t have too many mental/emotional stressors.

As far as what goals this works for, common sense applies here. IF is generally best for people who are already moderately lean and are trying to get leaner. If you’re trying to put on 30 pounds of mass, don’t start IF. If you’re an athlete with a very heavy training load, don’t try IF.

For those of you who fit the criteria of goals and health status, I suggest experimenting with the 8-hour fed/16-hour fasted periods. Eat quality foods to satiation in your eating window, especially focusing on the post-training period.

Keep in mind that IF is not for everyone, but it can be a powerful tool at certain times. Most importantly, even if IF isn’t for you, remember that you shouldn’t stress out if you miss a meal occasionally!

About the Author

Tyler Simmons is the owner and head Nutrition/Strength & Conditioning Coach at Evolutionary Health Systems. He has his bachelors in Kinesiology with a focus in Exercise Science and Exercise Nutrition from Humboldt State University. A former collegiate athlete, Tyler specializes in designing training and nutrition programs for athletes of all levels, as well as general population. Learn more at EvolutionaryHealthSystems.com.

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1. Bellisle, F., & McDevitt, R. (1997). Meal frequency and energy balance. British Journal of Nutrition, 77, 57-70.

2. Mansell, P., & Fellows, I. (1990). Enhanced thermogenic response to epinephrine after 48-h starvation in humans. The American Journal of Physiology, 258, 87-93.

3. Staten, M., Matthews, D., & Cryer, P. (1987). Physiological increments in epinephrine stimulate metabolic rate in humans. American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism, 253, 322-330.

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REAL Slimming Secrets from the Supermarket Part 2


REAL Slimming Secrets from the Supermarket:
Part 2

In part 1 of this series we revealed four slimming secrets available from your supermarket -coffee, hot red pepper, cinnamon and green tea- and their calorie-burning effects. Along the way, we learned that increasing your calorie-burning rate is the first step towards achieving negative fat balance, a metabolic state of affairs in which your body is burning more fat than it’s storing, and without which, fat loss is impossible. In this report we discuss how practical it actually is to use the “Top Four” to help you get you into negative fat balance and see the fat pounds come off.

Studies have made it fairly clear that taking caffeine can increase your calorie-burning rate. But can drinking coffee have the same effect? For help in answering this question, we reached out to Dr. Abdul Dulloo (Ph.D.), a lecturer and research fellow in the Department of Medicine and Physiology at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland. He states1 “There have been a couple of studies that have compared coffee with its equivalent in caffeine on metabolic rate. No differences have been found, suggesting that the thermogenic effect of coffee (as assessed at rest) is explained essentially by its caffeine content.”

Dulloo’s own studies suggest, however, that one cup may not be enough to produce fat loss, even if repeated long term. Recall from part 1 that when he and his colleagues2 gave subjects a single 100-mg dose of caffeine (equivalent to ~1.2 cups of coffee), their calorie-burning rate rose up to 4% for 2.5 hours. Anything less than 100 mg, the scientists felt, was unlikely to produce a demonstrable thermogenic effect. *
Let’s put these numbers into perspective. For the sake of example, assume that at rest you normally burn 1500 Calories a day. This is your resting metabolic rate. Thus, a 4% increase sustained over 2.5 hours equates to burning an additional 6.25 Calories, roughly the caloric content of a tablespoon of nonfat milk. Not impressed? You’re shouldn’t be.
In the same study, Dulloo and his colleagues tried stepping things up by giving subjects 100 mg of caffeine every 2 hours for 12 hours (600 mg total). The result? Their calorie-burning rate increased 8-11% over the same time frame. Continuing with our example, this would equate to burning an extra 60-83 Calories a day, or about half a glass of Merlot. While this is considerably more impressive, remember that 600 mg of caffeine corresponds to about 7 cups of coffee.
Even if you have a coffee habit like Hugo Chavez, some scientists suggest that you might not experience the same effects as you would by taking the equivalent amount of caffeine. Nishijima et al.3 relate:

“It needs to be pointed out that the common belief that caffeine and coffee consumption might have very similar physiological effects is not the case. Graham et al. (1998) have shown that the same dose of caffeine, either ingested in a capsule as in the present study, or in coffee resulted in different plasma adrenaline concentrations, i.e. being significantly higher after taking the caffeine capsules. These findings suggest that one cannot extrapolate the effects of caffeine to coffee; there must be something in coffee that moderates the effects of caffeine.”

Whether coffee can produce the same calorie-burning effect as has been repeatedly demonstrated for caffeine or not, it’s safe to say that many of us would prefer not to consume large quantities of either. The more practical, if not effective, approach may be to consume enough pure caffeine to provide a modest calorie-burning boost in combination with other ingredients that can safely elevate it further –a “team” approach, if you will. After all, if you were to burn an extra 83 Calories a day and do nothing else, it would take nearly a month and a half to lose one pound of body fat. Double this figure, however, and it would take only 20 days.
*[NOTE: Individual responses to caffeine can vary markedly. Also, more recent studies have found that doses less than 100 mg can produce modest thermogenic effects. For instance, in a double-blind study, Belza et al.4 gave young normal-weight men 50 mg of caffeine. Over the next 4 hours they burned roughly 17 more Calories (a 6% increase) than subjects taking a placebo.]

Hot Red Pepper
One of the ingredients to consider combining with caffeine is capsaicin, the compound responsible for the painful punch of hot red peppers. While it may not be at the top of your grocery list, it’s possible to consume enough of capsaicin from your diet to raise your calorie-burning rate, says Dr. Toshio Moritani (Ph.D.)5, a professor and director of the Laboratory of Applied Physiology at Kyoto University in Japan. He suggests adding chili pepper to curried rice.
Moritani and his colleagues have reported on the calorie-burning effects of capsaicin in several studies, one of which we discussed in part 1. In it, female subjects who received a curried rice meal containing 3 mg of capsaicin experienced a 10% increase in their calorie-burning rate. While this would equate to burning an additional 129 Calories a day if the effect were sustained for 24 hours, it was only measured for 30 minutes. Moritani relates “the expected increase in energy metabolism [calorie burning] is rather minimal such that only 10 to 20 Calories might be generated. It will take a year to lose 1 kg [2.2 lb] of body fat!”

Dr. Anita Belza, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Copenhagen, concurs6:

“The capsaicin concentration varies widely in the different chili fruits (0-13 mg/kg). Studies have been able to serve a palatable test meal with approximately 30 g of red pepper (3 mg capsaicin/g red pepper –Yoshiioka et al., Br J Nutr, 2001) to Western subjects 3 times a day. However, we have only worked with capsaicin in tablet form and in lower dosage but probably a more pure form. I think it will probably be quite difficult for a Western population to eat a dosage of capsaicin from food items to obtain a fat-reducing effect.”

As with caffeine, what Drs. Moritani and Belza are suggesting, in other words, is that you may need to consume larger amounts of capsaicin throughout the day before you see fat loss, amounts that may be intolerably difficult to obtain by adding hot red pepper to your meals. Like many things in life, these larger amounts bring with them a greater risk of undesirable side effects. Dr. Jose Galgani (Ph.D.), an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Chile, says7 that subjects have been known to drop out of capsaicin studies because of its pungency. In large quantities it can cause stomach discomfort.
Once again the more sensible approach may be to consume enough capsaicin to achieve a modest calorie-burning effect in combination with other natural ingredients capable of doing the same.
The good news is that although capsaicin appears to work by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system, it doesn’t produce the undesirable side effects associated with sympathetic stimulants such as ephedrine. Dr. Moritani explains5:

“With the amount of capsaicin commonly taken as part of diet, no adverse effects on sympathetic overreaction nor ECG [cardiac] abnormality have been reported.  Actually menopausal women with depressed autonomic nervous system could enhance sympatho-vagal functions and might be able to prevent obesity. [Low sympathetic nervous system activity has been suggested to be a risk factor for future weight gain and obesity.] Incidentally, caffeine could increase both sympathetic and parasympathetic activities without any adverse effects on cardiac functions.”

In part 1 we referred to research showing that cinnamon improves insulin sensitivity and blood glucose regulation even in lean, healthy subjects. Greater insulin sensitivity, in turn, may have metabolic effects leading to lower risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, for instance. While this is important, what we’re focusing on here is fat loss. That’s why it was encouraging to hear USDA scientist and well-published cinnamon researcher Dr. Richard Anderson (Ph.D.) tell us8 about the study conducted by he and his colleagues that demonstrated reductions in body fat in subjects given a cinnamon extract for 12 weeks. The subjects received 2 capsules twice each day (at breakfast and dinner) providing a total of 500 mg of extract equivalent to approximately 10 g (1.5 tablespoons) of whole cinnamon powder.

Ten grams of cinnamon is not a quantity ordinarily used in food. While Anderson tells8 us it may be possible to get enough cinnamon from the diet to lose body fat and even increase lean body mass (something he observed in his study), he warns that “when consuming high amounts of polyphenols in the diet the salivary glands produce a protein that binds and minimizes their effects.” This is important, since the polyphenols in cinnamon are thought to be responsible for its beneficial effects. In other words, ingesting it in the protected form of a capsule may be the better way to go.
Dr. Andrew Blannin (Ph.D.), a lecturer in the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Birmingham, has also conducted studies on cinnamon. He also feels that it would be extremely hard to eat enough cinnamon to produce improvements in insulin sensitivity without using a supplement.9
Green Tea
In their recent review of research supporting the use of green tea in the treatment of obesity10, Drs. Kimberly Grove (Ph.D.) and Joshua Lambert (Ph.D.) in the Department of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University remark that a typical cup of brewed green tea contains 240-320 mg of catechins, yielding 30-50% (72-160 mg) of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG is the catechin thought to contribute to green tea’s valuable calorie-burning effects.

In Dulloo et al.’s frequently-cited study11 performed in 1999, subjects received 2 capsules of green tea extract with each of three meals, providing a total of 270 mg of EGCG, equivalent to about 3-4 cups of brewed green tea1. Six out of ten subjects receiving the extract experienced an increase in their 24-hour calorie-burning rate ranging from 63.5-200 Calories, with the average being about 78.3 Calories. This is an impressive figure, comparable to the number of Calories someone might burn by running on a treadmill at a high speed (>9 mph) for around 4 minutes.

We don’t need a scientist to tell us that it’s possible to consume 3-4 cups of brewed green tea every day, or that doing so may eventually become tiresome. That being said, burning an extra 78.3 Calories a day is nothing to scoff at. And while canned or bottled tea drinks may sound like a more appealing alternative, these have been found to contain considerably smaller levels of EGCG than expected due to loss during manufacturing (e.g. high-temperature sterilization) and/or storage12.
Also keep in mind that black tea contains very little in the way of catechins, whereas oolong tea contains moderate amounts. Green tea has the highest level of catechins and EGCG in particular.
The “Team Approach”
The studies discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this series of reports provide powerful evidence that certain key ingredients in coffee, hot red pepper, cinnamon and green tea have valuable calorie-burning effects. In order to experience fat loss, however, you may need to consume fairly large quantities of any single ingredient. How many of us are willing to drink 3-4 cups of green tea, add hot red peppers to every meal and cough down 10 g of cinnamon powder in a single day, all followed by a chaser of 2-4 cups of coffee? In the final report in this series we’ll discuss a much more palatable and convenient solution that you won’t want to miss.
1. Dulloo (2010). Personal communication.
2. Dulloo et al. (1989). Am J Clin Nutr 49:44.
3. Nishijima et al. (2002). Eur J Appl Physiol, 87: 475.
4. Belza et al. (2009). Eur J Clin Nutr, 63: 57.
5. Moritani (2010). Personal communication.
6. Belza (2010). Personal communication.
7. Galgani (2010). Personal communication.
8. Anderson (2010). Personal communication.
9. Blannin (2010). Personal communication.
10. Grove and Lambert (2010). J Nutr 140(3): 446.
11. Dulloo et al. (1999). Am J Clin Nutr 70: 1040.
12. Chen et al. (2001).  J Agric Food Chem, 49: 477.

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