But what if I were to tell you that this is nothing but a myth!
Just like in any industry, people want to make a name for themselves in order to generate business and popularity particularly throughout social media. Unfortunately, it is common for many health "professionals" to promote such myths as it is what the general public want to hear.
No body wants to hear that simply improving the quality of the food they consume, monitoring the quantity whilst increasing physical activity is all it takes. Instead, people want extremes as they believe that this will be more affective at producing faster results. This is why fad diets are so popular.
No author will make a small fortune selling a book titled 'stop eating crap and get off your arse!'.
Although the advice "little and often" is far less extreme than others, research suggests that those who preach such information may actually be wrong!
In 1997, Bellisle, McDevitt and Prentice reviewed the available literature and concluded that meal frequency does not have a significant impact on the rate of weight loss. Rather, it is the restriction of energy that appears to have the largest effect.
Now although science does not have a sell-by-date, I am not going to leave you with research that is 17-years old to back up my point.
More recent data suggests that the advice that you have been given may be a myth also. Arciero, et al. (2013) showed that there where no significant differences in body fat reductions between those who consume 6 meals per day versus 3 meals per day, rather it was a reduction in energy intake that appeared to have the greatest overall affect. However, what they did suggest is that that a greater meal frequency can contribute to increases in lean mass.
So what we are saying, so far, is that you shouldnt worry about meal frequency if your goal is to reduce body fat, whereas it might be beneficial to eat more frequently if you're looking to build more muscle.
This increase in lean mass may be due to an increased rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) as a result of distributing protein intake more evenly throughout the day. This is suggested by Mamerow, et al. (2014) who explained that distributing protein intake evenly compared with skewing protein intake toward the last meal of the day can improve 24-hour MPS by 25%.
There is also evidence, in a study performed by Areta, et al. (2013), that regular feedings of moderate protein is superior to large and infrequent feedings, potentially due to rates of MPS returning to resting level within 2-hours of eating (Bohe, et al. 2001; Atherton, et al. 2013).
Meals containing moderate quantities of protein (i.e. 20g as suggested by Areta and colleagues) may be superior to those of a smaller quantity simply due to the greater leucine content (a typical 20g serving of whey protein isolate contains approximately 3g of the amino acid leucine). This is backed up by Luiking, et al. (2014) who demonstrated that consumption of a meal high in leucine (3g) is superior for increasing rates of postprandial (after meal) protein synthesis when compared with a meal containing a smaller quantity.
So to conclude, if you are looking to reduce body weight or more specifically fat mass, then it is potentially more important to focus on energy restriction, by manipulating both daily caloric intake and levels of physical activity, rather than worry about meal frequency.
However, if you are wanting to increase lean body mass in an attempt to improve body composition, then it is recommended that you consume regular feedings comprising of moderate protein with high leucine content (~3g), preferably with your daily protein intake distributed fairly evenly throughout meals.
Author: Karl Page
Arciero, P., Ormsbee, M., Gentile, C., Nindl, B., Brestoff, J., and Ruby, M., 2013. Increased protein intake and meal frequency reduces abdominal fat during energy balance and energy deficit. Obesity, 21 (7), pp. 1357-1366.
Areta, J., Burke, L., Ross, M., Camera, D., West, D., Broad, E., Jeacocke, N., Moore, D., Stellingwerff, T., Phillips, S., Hawley, J, & Coffey, V., 2013. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal Of Physiology, 591 (9), pp. 2319-2331.
Bellisle, F., McDevitt, R. and Prentice, A, M., 1997. Meal timing and energy balance. British Journal of Nutrition, 77 (1), pp. S57-S70.
Luiking, Y., Deutz, N., Memelink, R., Verlaan, S, and Wolfe, R., 2014. Postprandial muscle protein synthesis is higher after a high whey protein, leucine-enriched supplement than after a dairy-like product in healthy older people: a randomized controlled trial. Nutrition Journal, 13 (1), pp. 1-26.
Mamerow, M., Mettler, J., English, K, Casperson, S., Arentson-Lantz, E., Sheffield-Moore, M., Layman, D., and Paddon-Jones, D., 2014. Dietary Protein Distribution Positively Influences 24-h Muscle Protein Synthesis in Healthy Adults. Journal Of Nutrition, 144 (6), pp. 876-880.