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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

Three Hours a Meal or Three Meals a Day?


As a personal trainer and a person who strives to improve health, performance, and appearance, I have been taught to eat five to six meals a day. This eating habit is practiced by bodybuilders, performance athletes, and people wanting to accomplish fat loss. I find it to be a staple in what it is I teach to my clients and practice on a daily basis. Come to find out, there really is not a lot of research on eating six meals a day. The research that is available tends to side with eating less meals instead of more meals. Also, calorie restriction is still in favor, stressing that calories in must be less than calories expended. If you divide the waking hours of a person who has an eighteen-hour day, eating six meals a day would average out to about one meal every three hours. This is definitely a step away from the common acceptance of three square meals a day! Although this concept is widely accepted in the fitness and sports performance world, it is still somewhat unknown to the average person. In fact, it seems to be a rather difficult task to have a well controlled research study that involves many participants willing to eat five to six meals a day. Inaccuracies such as dishonesty in daily food journals and insufficient measurement indicators plague current research of this topic. Also, there are crucial aspects that are often left out of studies done on meal frequency, such as physical activity prior to the research, sex, content of the meals and other areas that could influence the research outcome. This review aims to explore some of the available research and provide insight on an eating technique that can lead to successful weight loss for anyone.


The purpose of this paper is to explore some of the information available that supports increased meal frequency for fat loss and increased performance, while also viewing articles that support strict calorie restriction. This allows the personal trainer and their clients to receive a better understanding where we are currently in this subject.

Review of Literature

Recommendations for Eating According to the International Sports Science Association

According to Patrick Gamboa, MSS, International Sports Science Association’s board moderator, there is not a study directly comparing three meals a day versus three hours a meal (2007). However, he believes that when a person views studies that show how the body uses food when digested, arguments that support eating six meals a day can be made. Gamboa shared several facts on the ISSA discussion board. He explains that our bodies use the calories of protein, carbohydrates, and fat very differently. For protein, how its amino acids are used after transport to the liver is determined by the body’s need at that moment. Some amino acids enter into the bloodstream in order to join other amino acids that have been liberated from the breakdown of body tissue. Others will be used by the liver to make liver enzymes, lipoproteins, and albumin, a blood protein. Cells take the available amino acids they need required for their functions. Protein synthesis can only occur when there is an adequate supply of both essential and non-essential amino acids. If one essential acid is missing, synthesis stops. When synthesis stops, the amino acid is then disassembled and then returned to the blood (Gamboa, 2007). Amino acids cannot be saved for future use. They are returned to the liver and stripped of their nitrogen, which becomes a part of urea and excreted by the kidneys. The remaining protein skeleton is converted to glucose (Gamboa, 2007).

For carbohydrates, the body breaks them down to either glucose, galactose, or fructose. These monosaccharides are absorbed through the small intestines and then circulated into the bloodstream through the liver as blood glucose. Glucose can be used by the body in three ways. It can be used immediately for energy if blood glucose levels are not stable. Stabilization for blood glucose is about 10 grams per circulating hour (Gamboa, 2007). If it isn’t needed for energy, it can be converted to glycogen in the liver or muscles. If there is an excess of glucose and glycogen is full, glucose is then converted to fat by the liver and stored as adipose tissue around the body. Fatty acids can be burned as fuel but not converted back to glucose.

Dr. Fred Hatfield is a pioneer in the sport of power lifting and in sports science. He was the first man to squat over 1000 pounds at a power lifting competition. He is a cofounder and president of the International Sports Science Association and has a Ph. D from Temple University (Hatfield, 2007). He developed a method to help athletes and people lose fat, optimize health, and improve performance. By understanding the groundwork placed by Gamboa, the system put in place by Dr. Hatfield can be justified. The following statements are ISSA’s rules of eating for every single person whether they are sedentary, active, young, old, and in shape or out of shape.

First, a person should always eat at least five meals a day (Hatfield, 2000). This controls blood sugar and insulin levels, which relates to a person’s energy level. A major concern for a person is their blood sugar level. After a meal, blood sugar elevates, which allows a person to function without loss of energy. Low blood sugar causes people to feel tired and weak. Providing the body with carbohydrates throughout the day helps to stabilize blood glucose. Small amounts of protein ingested throughout the day can help support growth and recovery instead of it being stored as fat. When put into a famine-state from infrequent eating, the endocrine system decides to store incoming food as fat in preparation for future lack of food.

Second, each meal should use the 3:2:1 system (Hatfield, 2000). This is: three parts carbohydrates, two parts protein, and one part fat. The fats consumed should be predominately unsaturated fat. The carbohydrates may go up of down depending on the work put forth in training and/or daily routine. The carbohydrates consumed should be low glycemic so that they are converted to blood sugar more slowly, which will better control insulin levels.

Third, a person should ask themselves what they are going to do in the next three hours (Hatfield, 2000). A person’s energy output will determine the amount of food they will ingest, mainly determining the carbohydrate intake. Keep fat intake low and keep the same protein levels established.

Fourth, in order to lose fat a person must be taking in fewer calories than they expend. In order to gain lean mass, you must take in more calories that you expend. In order to do both a person must zig zag their calories, meaning have times they ingest less calories than they expend and other times they ingest more calories than they expend (Hatfield, 2000). This will increase the basal metabolic rate and control insulin and glucagon levels, which supports lean mass building and recovery.

Fifth, Hatfield believes it is almost impossible to get all of the nutrients the body needs from food alone, so he recommends to supplement the diet with vitamins, minerals, and other substances to ensure health, fat loss, and maintain lean body mass (2000). A person should consume all five to six meals in a 15-18 hour period. Determining the size of each meal is important, and requires some planning on the part of the individual.

Leaders Who Support Five to Six Meals a Day

Besides Dr. Hatfield, there are other prominent fitness professionals who take the stand that people should increase their meals frequency in order to improve fat loss and performance, and other related areas. Phil Kaplan, one of fitness industries top personal trainers, recommends that people should try to eat a meal every three to three and a half hours (1997). This balances the hormone production of insulin and glucagon throughout the day. Additionally, the meals should be mixed with a lean protein, a starchy carbohydrate, and a fibrous carbohydrate (1997). This provides the body with amino acids and energy from carbohydrates all throughout the day. As Gamboa mentioned earlier, amino acids cannot be stored in the body as amino acids. The complex carbohydrates are more thermic than refined carbohydrates due to the mix of protein in the meal, and have a slower absorption rate because they are consumed in a more natural state (not refined). Kaplan mentions that all calories are not created equally, so what is ingested during the meals is just as important as when the meals are ingested (1997). This is why he stresses both frequency and quality of the food.

John Berardi, a leader in the nutritional research field, is another person who supports eating every three hours (2006). He admits that the person who does not exercise does not need to worry as much about meal frequency. He also says that law of thermodynamics is true, but conventional thinking is too simplistic (2006). However, in order to manipulate body composition, what to eat, how much to eat, and when to eat has to be understood. He makes a bold statement by saying at certain times of the day, we should consume meals based on several dietary strategies. He recommends the Atkin’s diet for three meals of the day, the Zone Diet for two meals of the day, and two or more meals based on the guidelines of an organization like the American Dietetics Association (2006). While this statement seems controversial, I believe Berardi’s statement is simply a way to recommend a similar approach of the Hatfield zig zag method without saying it is the Hatfield zig zag method. By following this method, the carbohydrate levels would be regulated specifically throughout the day. Berardi has simply re-packaged this idea in a colorful manner. However, Berardi does reconfirm that a person should think about what they are going to be doing in the next three hours, whether it is sitting, exercising, or some other activity. Berardi’s proposal of mixing advice from various “camps” should be considered research worth pursing.

Selected Research Articles on Meal Frequency

Over 70 years ago, it was discovered that reducing calories during adult life can increase the life span of laboratory rodents. There is plenty of research supporting calorie restriction and meal skipping. Some use research from Muslims who fast for one month during Ramadan. The research showed reduced levels of LDL cholesterol and increased levels of HDL in these Muslims (Mattson, 2005). However, the studies that show health benefits were short term and based from a low number of test subjects.

Yunsheng, Bertone, Stanek III, Reed, Herbert, Cohen, et al (2003) give us a different view on meal frequency. Their test subjects were not taking cholesterol-lowering medications, not on lipid-lowering or weight-control diets, free from secondary hypercholesterolemia, not working night shift, free from chronic illness in attempts to homogenize the group. In the study, any food consumption over 50 calories was considered a meal with 15 minutes between episodes. Breakfast skipping was measured by subtracting the time of getting out of bed to the time a meal was consumed. The meal before bed was also measured in this way. The frequency of eating meals away from home was measured by dividing the number of each meal away from home by total meals consumed. A mix of about 50% males and 50% females were used in the study. 48% of men and 33% of the women were considered overweight. 27% of the mean and 20% of the women were considered obese.

Here are some of the findings and data collected within this study. In the study, the participants ate 3.92 times daily. The average caloric intake for men was 2,259 calories and 1,641 for women. Fifty three percent of the people ate lunch away from home. Based on the research, people with higher education were associated with lower risks of obesity. Also people who participated in physical activity are associated with lower risks of obesity. Skipping breakfast is associated with a higher risk of obesity. According to Jenkins, Wolever, Vuksan et al. (1989), eating breakfast is a common characteristic of successful weight loss maintainers. Energy intakes for the subjects tended to be higher on the days subjects skipped breakfast. Eating breakfast away from home is associated with increased risk of obesity. People who eat dinner away from home have a twofold increased risk of obesity. There was no association between the last meal before bed and an increase in obesity (Jenkins, Wolever, Vuksan et al., 1989). The higher risk in obesity for dinner and breakfast founded by Yunsheng, Bertone, Stanek III, Reed, Herbert, Cohen, et al is probably associated with the increased caloric content of meals consumed away from home. Also there were higher percentages in fat and lower percentages in protein, carbohydrates, and fiber than meals consumed at home. Eating lunch away from home was associated with a lower risk of obesity. Subjects who reported four or more meals consumed were 33% less likely to be overweight. Several studies show that lower meal frequency has higher 24 hour insulin concentrations compared to a higher meal frequency. This is reconfirmed in this research.

There are interesting areas to view in this article. First, eating breakfast and dinner away from home tended to increase the subjects’ association with being obese. However, there is a discrepancy for eating lunch away from home. I don’t believe that these findings mean that a person should simply eat at home, rather it is showing that larger portions and unhealthy cooking methods are used more in restaurants. Also, there is a large within-subject variation for each person studied as far as intake and physical activity. But, the research does associate lower obesity numbers in people who combine meal higher meal frequencies with physical activity. Also, nutrient intake was not taken into consideration.

Mattson (2005, Controlled Studies) in his research supports calorie restriction, and backs his findings with improved health benefits mostly found in animal subjects. However, he admits that the problem with previous research on rodents is that the rodents used in the experiments were overweight and overfed prior to the studies. When the calorie restriction began, this showed the improved life span (Mattson, 2005). Also, pregnant women who practice calorie restriction may increase their unborn children’s chance of having insulin resistance later in life (Mattson, 2005). Body temperature is decreased when human are on a calorie restricted diet and decreased meal frequency. He further mentions that there are a higher number of people who have schizophrenia and chronic depression with insulin resistance than the general population. This can be simply explained by the tendency for people with mental problems to exercise less and eat more (Mattson, 2005).

Siega-Riz, Herrmann, Savitz, and Thorp (2001) also studied meal frequency and the effect it has on pregnancy. They found that women who consumed less meals or snacks weighed more prior to pregnancy to women who consumed five meals and/or snacks. Also, women who consumed fewer meals had a higher risk of having a premature birth. They hypothesize that the reason why there is a higher number of premature births associated with less meal frequency is due to the added physiological stress on their bodies due to the elevated levels of epinephrine, nor-epinephrine, and insulin (Siega-Riz, Herrmann, Savitz, & Thorp, 2001).

Why Some Research on Weight Loss and Meal Frequency Cannot Be Deemed Reliable

According to Rothblum, there are a lot of inaccuracies in the assessments of studies on this subject (1999). For example, some studies do not provide the actual weights of the participants or their body fat percentages. Others only give the mean weight loss from pre-treatment to post-treatment (Rothblum, 1999). Also, there is no focus on whether a person moves from one category of obesity to another during the treatments or follow-up.

There are a lot of inaccuracies in measuring in these studies. Some studies do not provide the actual weights of the participants or their body fat percentages. Others only give the mean weight loss from pre-treatment to post-treatment. Most of the time in clinical studies, people must have a BMI of 30 of greater in order to be chosen for the study. Also, many studies use young healthy women, and limit research on older, higher-risk participants with physical health problems. Also, some studies are flawed because they did not take into account the effects of total energy intake and physical activity (Yunsheng, Bertone, Stanek III, Reed, Herbert, Cohen, et al, 2003).

Rothblum gives us another area to consider. A common belief is that thinner people are healthier than obese people. There is no proof that successful dieters in certain studies are healthier than fatter people. This is never measured in research studies. Also, many studies use body mass index as an indicator for measurement. It is my personal opinion that BMI is useless in measuring people’s success because it fails to determine the body composition of the person. For example, most body builders would be considered obese using the BMI method due to their added lean body mass. Finding research that does not use BMI as an indicator proved to be difficult.

Allon’s, Foreyt, Goodrick and Grotto’s, Leon’s, Stunkard and McLaren-Hume’s, and Woodley and Woodley’s studies (as cited in Rothblum, 1999) tells us that only 1-2% of the participants are able to keep from gaining the weight after five years. This proves that these studies are ineffective. Some studies conducted have drop out rates as high as 75% of participants, which means the subjects involved in the research may not properly represent a particular group of people.

While research on animals can provide valuable knowledge, it is my opinion that there are limitations to that research. First, animals do not want the quality of life we as humans want to have. Also, just because weight loss is achieved in animals, the composition of what makes up the weight loss is important. If any amount of the weight that is lost is muscle, metabolism is ultimately slowed down, which is detrimental to long term success in maintenance of fat loss (Kaplan, 1997).

Finally, when journal staff members are choosing to review and publish articles and research findings, they are more like to consider the articles that resemble their own research methods and beliefs. Additionally, the media usually takes research out of context by indicating that diets do or don’t work. This adds further confusion to the public, including the researchers themselves. Science is ever changing and is simply a best guess on evidence that is given to researchers at a certain time and situation (Kaplan, 2007). Additionally, the body is too complex to measure one area only, partly due to the fact that many areas effect that one area being studied. Without this being taken into the utmost consideration, research on weight loss and meal frequency cannot be deemed reliable.

Personal Experiences and Observations of Meal Frequency in Relation to Fat Loss and Health

As a personal trainer, I am a practitioner, consultant and educator of health optimization, disease prevention, and fat loss as well as many other areas of life. It has been my experience that the clients that eat at a frequency of every three to three and a half hours, and eat a meal consisting of a lean protein, starchy carbohydrate, and fibrous carbohydrate, always have the best results in fat loss and health optimization. The people who have the most trouble increasing meal frequency generally have less overall results. However, it is the personal trainer’s job to help a client find the path toward increased meal frequency. If a person eats once a day, the journey to the correct path would be to get the client to increase their meal frequency to three meals a day. It has been my experience that the process of increasing meal frequency leads to better life changing results than getting a person to automatically begin eating five to six meals a day.

I have helped people lose fat, get off of medications, reverse diabetes, regain mobility, prevent osteoporosis, improve their sex life, improve function, increase energy levels, and many other things. I believe that meal frequency along with meals that are mixed with a proper amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fat is a major contributor. However, it cannot be the sole contributor, as I also believe having a concern for muscle, and improving cardiovascular function works synergistically in this process (Kaplan, 1997).


Controlled research that mixes meal frequency, meal consistency, cardiovascular exercise, and progressive resistance training is desperately needed. In a society that is looking for the magic bullet to get fit, people are becoming more confused day by day while believing becoming more fit is hopeless. While there is research that supports meal frequency as a benefit to health and weight loss endeavors, more is needed.


Berardi, J. (2006) The science of nutrient timing: part ii. Retrieved November 11, 2007, from John Berardi’s Web site: http://www.johnberardi.com/articles/nutrition/nutr_timing_ii_htm

Gamboa, P. (2007, October 17). 3 hours a meal or 3 meals a day?. Message posted to https://www.issatrainer.com/question_board/view.cfm?question_id=37716. Retrieved November 11, 2007.

Hatfield, F. C. (2000) Fitness: The Complete Guide (6th ed.) California: International Sports Sciences Association.

Hatfield, F. C. (2007) Who is Dr. squat? Retrieved November 11. 2007, from Dr. Squat’s Web site: http://drsquat.com/home/index.phpoption=com_content&task=view&id=1&Itemi...

Jenkins, D.J., Wolever, T.M. Vuksan, V., et al. (1989) Nibbling versus gorging: metabolic advantages of increased meal frequency [Electronic Version] [Abstract]. New England Journal of Medicine, 321, 929-34. Accessed November 3, 2007, from Gale Power Search

Kaplan, P. (2007) Phil Kaplan’s the fitness truth: update 7/27. Retrieved November 11, 2007, from Phil Kaplan’s Fitness and Weight Loss Solutions Web site: http://www.philkaplan.com/thefitnesstruth/update_7_27.htm

Kaplan, P. (1997) Transform! The Ultimate Fitness Solution (1st ed.) Florida: Great Atlantic Publishing Group.

Mattson, M.P. (2005) Energy intake, meal frequency, and health: a neurobiological perspective [Electronic Version]. Annual Review of Nutrition, 25, 237-60. Accessed November 3, 2007, from ProQuest.

Mattson, M.P. (2005) The need for controlled studies of the effects of meal frequency on health [Electronic Version]. Lancet, 365: 1978-80. Accessed November XX, 2007, from ProQuest.

Rothblum, E. (1999) Contradictions and confounds in coverage of obesity: psychology journals, textbooks, and the media [Electronic Version]. Journal of Social Issues, 55, 355-369. Accessed November 3, 2007, from ProQuest.

Siega-Riz, A. M., Herrmann, T. S., Savitz, D. A., & Thorp, J.M. (2001) Frequency of eating during pregnancy and its effect on preterm delivery. American Journal of Epidemiology,Vol. 153, Iss. 7; p. 647. Accessed November 3, 2007, from ProQuest

Yunsheng, M., Bertone, E.R., Stanek III, E.J., Reed, G.W., Herbert, J.R., Cohen, N.L., et al. (2003) Association between eating patterns and obesity in free-living US adult population [Electronic Version]. American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 158, No. 1. Accessed November 3 2007, from ProQuest.