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6 meals vs 3 meals a day (part 1)




As a teenager, I was used to going without food for many hours, and would eat only after 3.30 in the afternoon, which meant that I ate after 17 hours since my last meal, which was dinner the night before at around 10. And thereafter I would eat another 1-2 meals, which meant that I got a total of 2-3 meals a day. So you can say that I was unknowingly doing the so called intermittent fasting thing years before it became popular thanks to the internet. And I ate that way for about 10 years of my life, so I can say that I have a fair amount of experience of doing so. Of course in my case it was not meant to be done for any dieting or such purposes, its just that I was not really interested in the usual breakfast at that age, and would rather wait to have lunch and dinner.

This type of eating continued for me till I passed out of school, which is when I became a keen reader of bodybuilding and fitness magazines. Now if you have read even a single fitness magazine from the 90's then you would be well aware of the theory of why 6 meals a day is the best way to eat for muscle building/fat loss and overall health benefits. The health magazines in those days, and even today are always telling you to eat multiple small meals a day, if you want to be in great shape. As per their logic, if you go more than 2-3 hours without food, then you will start losing muscle mass, have very low levels of energy, store bodyfat easily, etc. In short, eating small meals frequently keeps your metabolism working in top gear, and will make you a lean and mean muscle machine!


The 6 meals a day eating plan is still very popular among bodybuilders today, and many swear by it. However in recent times there has been a growth in the popularity of the good old 3 meals a day eating plan, which includes the standard breakfast, lunch and dinner. Infact there has also been a growth in the popularity of fasting, with some experts asking you to go 24 hours without eating anything at times. Those who suggest lesser meals a day, often claim that everything the 6 meals a day experts told us, is wrong, and that these "false" claims were promoted to benefit the food and dietary supplement industry. According to them eating infrequently is far superior for fat loss, managing insulin levels, looking young, etc.

So while there are major claims in support and against both the 3 meals and 6 meals a day eating plan, what does the world of scientific research say about this debate? Unfortunately, as with most nutritional debates, this debate too has many researches supporting both sides. So while the 6 meals a day experts will show you 5 research findings to prove their claim, you will also have the 3 meals a day experts showing you 5 or more research findings to prove their claim too. And in the real world, both eating plans have delivered a great deal of success for their followers, so again, its hard to decide who is correct based on results.

As per the theme of this blog, which is based on simplifying things and looking more at simple and practical explanations rather than too much scientific mumbo jumbo, I will try to give you an idea of which is better for you based on your needs. In this part I will cover the 6 meals a day plan and try to explain when this type of eating is ideal.

First of all, when I say 6 meals a day, I do not mean exactly 6, it could even be 5 meals and also more than 6. So if you eat 8, 9, 10 or more meals a day, then it would come under the frequent eating plan. And meals in this case do not refer to solid meals only, it also includes protein shakes and snacks that one may eat during the day. So lets first look at what are the benefits of this eating plan:

  • Ideal for eating a lot of calories- if you need to eat a lot of calories to gain weight or because you are an athlete who burns a lot of calories, then frequent meals is ideal for you. For eg if someone needs to eat 4500 calories in a day, then trying to get them in 3 or less meals a day will mean eating a lot at one go, which could be hard to digest on a daily basis. On the other hand, 4500 calories broken down into 6 smaller meals will make it a lot easier on your system. Also, it will not make you feel heavy and lazy as one may feel after eating a huge meal.
  • Great to follow when trying to consume high amounts of protein- our bodies were not designed to be able to digest 70-80 gms or more of protein in one meal easily. Its always best for most people to keep protein to about 15-40 gms at each serving, and maybe a bit more for really big guys who exercise a lot. If you need to eat lets say 200 gms of protein a day or more, then its ideal to break down your protein intake over the course of 5 or more meals a day, rather than try to have in 2-3 meals. Again, it does not have to be 5-6 solid meals, even 3 solid meals, and 2 protein shakes will do the job.
  • Great to follow when trying to consume large amounts of carbs- while carbs are a source of energy, too much of it at one sitting makes most people feel sleepy and tired. Now if you are one of those few lucky people who can eat a huge serving of pasta and feel like doing a workout immediately, then this does not apply to you. However for most, a big serving of pasta would make them feel just the opposite. Thus for hard training athletes or those who have a very high metabolism, and who need a lot of carbs, it is ideal to break it down in smaller servings, so that they do not have drops in energy levels due to high carbs in each meal.
  • Avoids drops in energy/sugar levels- some people truly cannot go on for more than 3-4 hours without eating anything, and still be able to perform well. For these people smaller frequent servings work well and helps to keep their energy/sugar levels stable.

There are however some major drawbacks to consider too:

  • Tough to keep up with on a day to day basis for most people- unless you are a housewife, or happen to be working from home, being able to make time to eat every 2-3 hours will be tough. For most of us, who's work keeps us very involved, and barely gives us breathing space, this plan is going to be almost impossible to follow.
  • Can interfere with your life- I remember once reading in a magazine about a Mr. Olympia who used to eat 9-10 meals a day. Like his buddies he too loved to go on long bike rides, but because he had to eat every few hours, going out meant that he would have to miss a meal or more, which was not possible for him. Now for a Mr. Olympia contestant, this can be acceptable, but if you constantly turn down your friends to be able to stay at home, to eat, then you are likely to have much fewer friends. Sure, staying back home to workout might still be considered noble by some, but to eat....really? Plus, most of us workout and eat right to be able to enjoy a better life, and not necessarily to make it our whole life.
  • Can make you eat more than what you need- as I mentioned earlier that eating smaller meals allows you to eat more since the portions are smaller at each serving. That may be great if you want to put on some weight, but if you are trying to lose some weight, then this can work against you. When eating smaller meals, it can be easy to eat more calories if you dont keep track, and this means that losing fat will be impossible.

Again, I emphasize, that the 6 meals a day plan has indeed given very good results in the past, so do not dismiss it as a worthless method like some fasting experts might claim. If you have the ideal lifestyle for it, or need to eat tons of calories, then this is plan is great for you. You can also follow a more modified 6 meals a day plan of eating, where you have 3 main meals a day, and then snack another 2-3 times on foods that you can easily carry with yourself and eat on the run. These would include fruits, nuts, supplements, boiled eggs, sandwiches, etc. Just be sure that you can stay committed to eating frequently during the day, and that it does not interfere with your day to day activities.

Stay tuned for part 2, where I will discuss the 3 meals a day eating plan, and if that is ideal for you.


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