Meal Frequency: How Often Should You Be Eating?

Take a look around at meal plans that you find on Pinterest or in a general Google search.. Everyone has a different idea of how many times a day you should eat or your meal frequency.

You have more traditional bodybuilders recommending eating every 2-3 hours, which equals around 6 or so meals a day, depending on how long you're awake. General fitness people recommending that you eat 3 meals and 1-2 snacks. Then you have things like OMAD which stands for One Meal A Day. This is kind of new to the scene in terms of being promoted.

What if I told you that all of the meal frequency plans didn’t matter? I’d be crazy right? But so and so says this and they’re an expert.. Experts can be wrong and stuck in their ways and thoughts of what’s right. One thing does not *always* work for *everyone*.

Some background

The traditional bodybuilding meal frequency comes from the initial research that was done into the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). TEF is the amount of calories that your body burns when digesting and processing food. The assumption was that the more frequently that you ate, the more calories you were burning because you were always digesting food.

While the calories that are burned while digesting food are different for each macronutrient, you can estimate that you will burn about 10% of total calories. If you want to get more specific:
  • Protein burns about 20-35% of total calories
  • Carbohydrates burn 5-15% of total calories
  • Fats burn 0-5% of total calories
Here’s an example: A 150 pound women needs 2100 calories to maintain her weight. So she will burn an estimated 210 calories digesting her food. Check out the Chart below for the break down.

Meal FrequencyCalories Eaten per MealCalories Burned per MealTotal Calories Burned due to TEF
Bodybuilding (6 meals)35035210
General Fitness (3+1 snack)650+15065+15210
OMAD (1 meal)2100210210

Now that you know that what the thermic effect of food (TEF) is and that it is largely based on total calories.. How do you know which meal frequency to follow? It’s pretty much you’re choice.
Some questions to ask yourself when you choose your meal frequency:
  • How often am I hungry?
  • How often do I think about food?
  • Do I want to eat smaller meals more often, or larger meals less often?
  • When does my energy slump? Would a snack at this time help my energy?
  • How do I feel about restricting my eating to one meal a day?
  • What’s my typical schedule like?
Take these questions into consideration when you look at good and bad (in my humble opinion) of each of the options.

Traditional Bodybuilding (5-8 meals a day) Meal Frequency

Traditional bodybuilding meal plans recommend that you eat every 2-4 hours in order to burn more calories using digestion. Also, there was something floating around the bodybuilding world that stated that you can only use 30 grams of protein at any one time. So if you were a bigger guy and needed something like 300 grams of protein a day, you’d have to eat 10 meals!
  • If you like to graze throughout the day, this would be great for you
  • Can help some people keep hunger at bay when dieting on lowered calories
  • You’re eating 5-8 times a day
  • Carrying your food with you everywhere
  • Never really full, because your meals aren’t very big
  • Have to prep all of your food

General Fitness (3 Meals and 1 Snack) Meal Frequency

I’m not 100% sure where the general fitness meal plan template came from. I can assume that it’s modified from the traditional bodybuilding idea, but reduces meals as tons of muscle growth isn’t the main goal.

The recommendation of 3 meals and 1 snack works well for a lot of people. You get to eat 3 decent sized meals and have a snack, whether you make that snack desert or something to get you through the 3 o’clock slump.

  • “Normal” meal schedule
  • Carry less food with you (maybe just lunch and snack, unless you like to eat out)
  • Bigger meals
  • Increased satiety (feel full)
  • Desert possible
  • May have to prep food ahead of time
  • Feel like to you have to eat frequently
  • Energy slumps possible

One Meal A Day (OMAD) Meal Frequency

This meal plan is newish. Newish because it’s, of course, been around forever.. but it’s just now starting to gain some popularity with the increased interest in Intermittent Fasting. OMAD is as simple as it seems, though may be deceptively hard.. You eat off of your calories in one meal (or sitting).
  • Large volume of full to leave you feeling full
  • Largest variety of foods to choose from
  • Works well if time is always an issue
  • Great if you love to cook fancy meals
  • There’s almost always desert
  • Large volume of food may increase gas and bloating
  • You have to figure out the right combination of foods to eat while hitting all of your macros at once
  • Planning and coordination required
  • You don’t eat all day
Don’t get me wrong, these are not all of the meal frequencies out there, but I wanted to touch on some of the main categories. Lots of meals, a few meals, and one meal to give you some food for thought about each one. What I find works best for me doesn’t work for my husband. He hates having to always eat, but I love it.. So the choice is yours.
Tell me which option you like best!

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