“Eat many, small meals to stoke the metabolic flame.” Many people believe that eating small meals more frequently keeps your metabolism humming, prevents hunger, and controls blood sugar. As a result, your body burns more calories overall. Sound good, right? Except it may not work that way.

The idea that eating more frequent, smaller meals will boost your metabolism is a persistent myth and research shows that this is simply not true. While this idea sounds legit in theory, most studies have found no link between meal frequency and increased TEF. In fact, after examining four separate studies (in which people split the same total caloric intake among anything from one to seven meals), the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that increasing the number of meals consumed per day did not improve resting metabolic rate or 24-hour energy expenditure. 

It is true that the body expends a certain amount of energy digesting and assimilating the nutrients in a meal. This is termed the Thermic Effect Of Food (TEF), and amounts to about 20-30% of calories for protein, 5-10% for carbs and 0-3% for fat calories. On average, the thermic effect of food is somewhere around 10% of the total calorie intake.

However, what matters here is the total amount of calories consumed, not how many meals you eat. And for the most part, research shows that eating more frequently doesn’t appear to boost weight loss.

Eating six 500-calorie meals has the exact same effect as eating three 1000-calorie meals. Given an average thermic effect of 10%, it is 300 calories in both cases.

This is supported by numerous feeding studies in humans, showing that increasing or decreasing meal frequency has no effect on total calories burned.

BOTTOM LINE: There is no difference in calories burned if you eat more frequently. Total calorie intake and macronutrient breakdown is what counts.