What's Better: 3 Big Meals or Several Small Ones?

The truth about meal frequency and its effect on metabolism.

Loading the player...

Fact or fiction: Will eating frequent small meals throughout the day keep your metabolism humming? Sorry folks, that’s actually a myth (along with these metabolism misconceptions). Eating frequent mini meals throughout the day may keep you from getting too hungry (and noshing on unhealthy eats later), but there’s little scientific evidence on how small meals actually boost your metabolism.

While it’s true that your body burns calories during digestion and the absorption of nutrients—this is called the thermic effect of food, which on average burns about 10% of your daily calories—it expends energy based on the total calories consumed, not how often you’re eating. So whether you eat two 1,000-calorie meals or five 400-calorie meals (both equaling 2,000 calories per day), you’re still burning about 10% of your total calories to digest that food, which in this case, is 200 calories.  

So should you stick to the good ol’ fashioned three meals a day? “The medical literature is mixed here. The answer probably depends more on your personal preference and what works for your lifestyle,” says Sharon Richter, RD, a registered dietitian based in New York City.

If you’re a natural grazer and do better when you don’t let yourself get too hungry, then go ahead and eat smaller meals more often. “Just make sure you choose a balance between mini meals that offer a mix of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and either a fruit or vegetable,” says Richter.

If your body craves more at mealtimes and you can go longer without eating, then do that. “If you’re more of a standard meal eater, try to plan ahead so you know what you’re going to be eating throughout the day, and you don’t wind up making a poor choice simply because you’re starving and you have no good food options,” says Richter.

Whatever your pleasure, just make sure you’re paying attention to hunger cues and calorie intake—and only eating when your body needs it.