5 Meal-Timing Myths Exposed
Share the truths that debunk myths about meal timing to guide clients toward meeting their goals.
The top five meal-timing myths cluster around the value of fasting compared with eating frequent small meals in relation to metabolism, muscle mass and body composition. Overlay these elements with the realities of client goals, lifestyles and sustainability, and you can see why myths arise. Once you uncover the truth about meal frequency, you will be empowered to confidently discuss the general health relevance of meal frequency and fasting with your clients.
Myth #1: Meal Frequency Improves Metabolism
Available literature states pretty firmly that increasing your meal frequency does not have a metabolic advantage. It’s important to reiterate to your clients that if increasing the frequency of their meals helps them attain calorie goals, great! But if they have a hard time with meal planning and counting calories, this method may do more harm than good.
Myth #2: Fasting Is Best for Fat Metabolism
Fasting will, by the laws of energy metabolism, increase the amount of energy being utilized from fat. However, intermittent fasting isn’t the only way to tap into fat metabolism. Caloric restriction has been shown time and time again to increase fat mobilization, especially in combination with exercise (Cherif et al. 2016).
Fasting protocols may be beneficial for some populations and not for others. For some populations, fasting can be a great alternative to stay on the path to attaining calorie goals. However, especially for very active clients or athletes, there may be performance repercussions.
Myth #3: Increased Meal Frequency = Reduced Hunger
The research is not definitive. Increasing meal frequency to a level that is higher than what you are used to may actually increase your hunger, according to some reports (Ohkawara et al. 2013). Overall, this is directly associated with BMI (body mass index). Research shows that, on average, as BMI increases, circulating ghrelin levels decrease—while circulating leptin levels increase (Monti et al. 2006).
Since many factors regulate hunger hormones, it may be best to focus on diet quality and caloric targets instead of eating patterns.
Myth #4: Meal Frequency Changes Body Composition
Currently, the evidence does not support an added benefit of increased meal frequency for long-term body composition goals. For a lower-calorie diet, a pattern of eating fewer meals may reduce the risk of underreporting food intake.
In general, if clients are trying to lose weight, lowering meal frequency may be helpful because it allows fewer opportunities to eat. However, if the goal is to increase mass, build muscle or hone physique, eating more frequently may be a better approach to help spread out needed calories.
Myth #5: Nutrient Timing is Critical
Timing the consumption of specific nutrients can be an important way for athletes to ensure that their protein or carbohydrate intake is enough to support muscle recovery and to replenish energy stores. But for most people trying to look and feel better, adopting this strategy could overcomplicate an already difficult and demanding lifestyle shift.
Timing our food intake is more of the cherry-on-top of eating patterns. The first step is to focus on overall energy goals, macronutrient aims and exercises that support muscular fitness (for optimal body composition). The timing of nutrients can then be introduced in more specialized discussions once tracking, calories and macronutrients are in place.
See also: Myths About Meal Timing and Frequency
Lifestyle Rules Eating Patterns
If you’re a dietitian or health coach working with clients, it’s certain that you will get questions related to meal frequency. The bottom line is that many client goals may be attained by limiting the number of calories being consumed. Caloric restriction—whether from one meal or five—helps clients stay on target. We need to motivate clients to decide on the right meal pattern for them, as part of a plan that supports them both physically and mentally.
Experts agree that meal patterns should be client-centered and adaptable in order to drive long-term lifestyle change. When trainers understand their clients, build rapport and tailor client needs to goals, both trainers and clients can win.
Cherif, A., et al. 2016. Effects of intermittent fasting, caloric restriction, and Ramadan intermittent fasting on cognitive performance at rest and during exercise in adults. Sports Medicine, 46 (1), 35–47.
Monti, V., et al 2006. Relationship of ghrelin and leptin hormones with body mass index and waist circumference in a random sample of adults. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 106 (6), 822–28.
Ohkawara, K., et al. 2013. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity, 21 (2), 336–43.