Along the way on your weight loss journey, you’ve probably at some point encountered the idea of breaking up the standard two or three daily meals into a bunch of smaller ones. It’s a sound concept, at least on paper — regular intake of smaller amounts of food is supposed to keep the metabolism elevated, and you’re also more likely to avoid insulin spikes and keep cravings from building.
However, there are many ideas like this that sound sensible to the layman but don’t actually hold up under scientific investigation. Up until this point, the “smaller meals more often” hypothesis was one of those deals.
Studies actually found that more frequent intake of smaller meals actually had adverse effects on some populations — one study saw a group of lean men’s appetites increase, while another saw no increase in energy expenditure in obese men and a negative effect on metabolism and fat oxidation.[1,2]
A New Direction?
A new study may have found a connection between spread-out meals and weight loss, however.
The study directly compared two meals a day to six meals a day in a group of obese women. Portions were controlled, and the groups ate on a fixed schedule. The two-meal group ate every five to six hours during a normal period of wakefulness and sleep, while the six-meal group ate every two to three hours. Meal totals for each day consisted of about 1,200 calories and were relatively high in protein at 75g.
The two groups ended up losing roughly the same amount of weight, with the two-meal group losing just a tiny bit more.
However, the six-meal group did have one advantage — a small increase in fat-free mass.
A controlled, quality study
While this study was controlled, randomized and published in a reputable journal, it’s still just one study with one particular population. It also didn’t track things like blood glucose, insulin and cholesterol levels. So it’s certainly not a basis to declare the “smaller meals more often” hypothesis suddenly validated.
With all that said, it’s the first significant study in which the hypothesis has held up, indicating further research may be merited.
So Does My Number Of Meals Really Matter?
Actually, it does — because real life isn’t a controlled clinical trial with pre-measured portions!
Six meals versus two per day equals four more chances to overeat. A major reason why the “smaller meals more often” eating plan often fails is that the people who are doing it aren’t rigorously counting their calories and macronutrients for each meal.
So you’re not carefully counting and you accidentally overdo it by about 100 calories per meal, right? Well, with six meals a day, that’s 600 extra calories per day — adding over a pound per week to your weight!
As we’ve said before in this space, overall caloric and macronutrient intake is the single most important factor in body composition. Even the results of this most recent study bear out the idea that the amount of meals doesn’t change your weight if the calories taken in per day are the same.
So six meals could be just as good as two, if that works better for you and helps keep away cravings. But it’s also four more opportunities to get your caloric intake wrong. If you’re not skilled, disciplined and rigorous about tracking everything you take in, then sticking with two or three meals that are much more carefully planned definitely seems like the way to go.
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