How many meals to eat per day???

This question has been posed to me over and over again down the years, so I thought it was time I finally wrote something about the topic.

"How many meals should you be eating per day for________________________(Insert your goal)?"

Fulla Strength and Conditioning

I'd like to start off by saying that this question is a very individual one, and as such will have a very individual response to match.

Before I answer the question, I'd like to ask you a different one. "How many meals CAN you eat per day?" 

What suits your lifestyle and daily routine?

The reason that I ask, is because if you are only able to realistically eat 3-4 times per day, it's pretty much useless me telling, or advising you to eat 5-7 times a day.

Wouldn't you agree?

Assessing what is realistic, is the first step in being able to answer the big question, "How many meals a day should you eat?"

Now that you have answered that, I'd like to provide you with some information to help you understand why it may, or may not be beneficial to eat more meals per day.

The main topic and idea that you need to understand is what's called the 'Thermic Effect of Feeding' (TEF, for short). This is essentially the energy that your body uses to chew, breakdown, digest and convert the food you eat into energy, which goes into your body on a daily basis.

The TEF contributes approximately 10% of the calories ingested to breakdown the food into usable energy. 

In other words, 10% of the calories you take in, are used to break down food.

Below I will cover 2 examples, so you get an idea of how it works;

The classic:  Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

The classic: Breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Example 1

  • 3 meals per day

  • 500 calories in each meal

  • 1,500 calories p/day

Calories burned due to TEF

  • Meal 1 = 50 calories 

  • Meal 2 = 50 calories 

  • Meal 3 = 50 calories 

That is a total of 150 calories burned daily thanks to the thermic effect of feeding.

Smaller, but more fequent meals

Smaller, but more fequent meals

Example 2

  • 6 meals per day

  • 250 calories in each meal
  • 1,500 calories p/day

Calories burned due to TEF

  • Meal 1 = 25 calories 

  • Meal 2 = 25 calories 

  • Meal 3 = 25 calories 

  • Meal 4 = 25 calories 

  • Meal 5 = 25 calories 

  • Meal 6 = 25 calories 

That is also a total of 150 calories burned due to the thermic effect of feeding.

So you see, both examples yield 1,500 calories per day in terms of total calories - and they also use 150 calories via the TEF.

That means you are taking in the same amount of energy and also burning the same amount of calories over the span of your meals. You're not magically 'stoking your metabolism', just because you ate an extra meal or two!

There is however, a slightly different thermic (heat) effect for each of the different macronutrients.

Protein has the highest TEF, as the body requires more energy to process it. Whereas, fats tend to have the lowest thermic effect - leaving carbohydrates in the middle.

Back to the burning question, which is better, 3, 4, 5 or 6 meals per day?

My response is, "It depends".

Fulla Strength and Conditioning

The way you should assess and design your day will be dependent on how many meals a day you CAN eat, in conjunction with your activity/tasks/job and how many meals you WANT to eat. 

It just means that you may need to adjust your portion size/s depending on the meal frequency and quantity you decide to have each day.

This is a complicated question, but the take-away points are:

  • Roughly 10% of calories that you consume are used to break food down via the TEF
  • Pick a number of meals that you CAN, and WANT to eat per day
  • Adjust portion sizes per meal, according to the above point (More meals, less calories. Less meals, more calories)
  • Be sure to take in all 3 macronutrients on a daily basis
  • Eat nutrient dense foods (lots of vitamins and minerals), regardless of the number of meals
Fulla Strength and Conditioning

The last thing I will say, is that I personally feel I get more total nutrients in from more frequent meals. This is a choice I have made and one that suits my work and lifestyle.

Feel free to tinker with meal frequency and see what works best for you.

Use your body and experiment with it until you find what has you functioning at a high level and moving in the right direction for your goal(s).

Please note that everyone is different, and therefore you will need to find what works best for YOU!

I hope this sheds some light on meal frequency and that you understand more about food and the process of TEF.

If you'd like to discuss this topic further, or have any questions, please feel free to drop me a line HERE and I will gladly get back to you!

Until next time,

Eat for your goals


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