Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

Is it better to eat a lot of small meals or a few big ones?

In fact, some research suggests that eating three larger meals per day may be more beneficial.

For optimal health, it is broadly acknowledged in contemporary culture that individuals should split their daily diet into three big meals — breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

This belief is based primarily on society and initial observational data.

However, in recent times, experts have begun to shift their thinking, proposing that eating smaller, more frequent meals may be the best way to prevent chronic disease and lose weight. As a result, more people are shifting their eating habits to include numerous small meals all through the day.

Those who advocate for eating small, frequent meals suggest that this eating pattern can:

  1. improve satiety, or feeling full after a meal
  2. increase metabolism and body composition
  3. prevent dips in energy
  4. stabilize blood sugar
  5. prevent overeating.

While some studies back up these suggestions, others show no discernible benefit.

Here is what the research says.

Meal frequency and chronic disease

Early epidemiological studies suggest that increased meal frequency can improve blood lipid (fats) levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. As a result, many experts advise against eating fewer, larger meals a day. Over the years, some studies have supported these findings, suggesting that people who report eating small, frequent meals have better cholesterol levels than those who consume fewer than three meals per day.

In particular, one 2019 cross-sectional study that compared eating fewer than three meals per day or more than four meals per day found that consuming more than four meals increases HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and lowers fasting triglycerides more effectively. Higher levels of HDL are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.

This study observed no differences in total cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. It is important to note, however, that this is an observational study, meaning it can only prove association, not causation.

Additionally, one review published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation concluded that greater eating frequency is associated with a reduced risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to epidemiological studies.

Meal frequency and weight loss

There is a commonly held notion that more frequent meals can help influence weight loss. However, the research on this remains mixed.

For example, one study compared eating three meals per day or six smaller, more frequent meals on body fat and perceived hunger. Both groups received adequate calories to maintain their current body weight using the same macronutrient distribution: 30% of energy from fat, 55% carbohydrate, and 15% protein.

At the end of the study, researchers observed no difference in energy expenditure and body fat loss between the two groups. Interestingly, those who consumed six smaller meals throughout the day had increased hunger levels and desire to eat compared to those who ate three larger meals per day.

Although calorie intake was controlled in both groups, researchers hypothesized that those who consumed frequent meals would be more likely to consume more daily calories than those who ate less frequently.

Results of another large observational study suggest that healthy adults may prevent long-term weight gain by:

  1. eating less frequently
  2. eating breakfast and lunch 5 to 6 hours apart
  3. avoiding snacking
  4. consuming the largest meal in the morning
  5. fasting for 18-19 hours overnight.

Moreover, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, due to inconsistencies and limitations in the current body of evidence, there is insufficient evidence to determine the relationship between meal frequency and body composition and the risk of overweight and obesity.

Is it true that eating frequently boosts metabolism? Modest, frequent meals are frequently promoted as a panacea for obesity. Many people think eating every 2 to 3 hours helps to increase metabolism. Digestion of food does require energy. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF). However, it does not appear that meal frequency plays a role in boosting metabolism.

In fact, some studies suggest fewer, larger meals may increase TEF more than eating frequent meals.

Meal frequency and athletic performance

Although evidence to support increased meal frequency in the general population remains mixed, several experts believe that eating small, frequent meals can benefit athletes. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, athletes who follow a reduced-calorie diet may benefit from eating small frequent meals with adequate protein because it can help preserve lean muscle mass.

In athletes, a higher meal frequency may improve performance, support fat loss, and improve body composition when total daily calorie intake is prioritised.

Diet quality

People who eat more frequently are more likely to have better diet quality.

Specifically, those who consume at least three meals per day are more likely to have a greater intake of vegetables, greens, legumes, fruit, whole grains, and dairy. These individuals are also more likely to consume less sodium and added sugars than those who consume two meals per day.

Similarly, another 2020 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that increased meal frequency — approximately three meals per day is associated with higher diet quality.

Researchers found that snack frequency and diet quality varied depending on the definition of snacks.

Is one better than the other?

Based on the presented studies, no substantial evidence supports one eating pattern over the other. Yet many of these studies also have limitations. For example, there is no universally accepted definition of what a meal or snack consists of. This can have an impact on study outcomes. With that said, both eating patterns can be beneficial as long the primary focus is on healthful eating habits.

Who should consume small, frequent meals?

A review published in Nutrition in Clinical Practice shows that certain populations may benefit from six to 10 small, frequent meals. These include people who:

  1. experience early satiety
  2. are trying to gain weight
  3. have gastroparesis
  4. have gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or bloating.

If you want to lose weight, you must be mindful of your portion sizes. Make sure to stay within your daily calorie allowance and divide it evenly between meals. For example, if you require 1,800 calories per day to maintain your weight and choose to eat six small meals per day, each meal should contain approximately 300 calories. Small, frequent meals are frequently comprised of ultra-processed foods and snacks that are deficient in many essential nutrients required by your body. As a result, it is critical to concentrate on the quality of the foods you eat.

Who should consume fewer, larger meals? People who may benefit from three larger meals per day include:

  1. those who have difficulty practicing portion control
  2. those who tend not to eat mindfully
  3. people who live busy lives and may not have time to plan and prepare several nutritious mini-meals a day.

Again, keeping diet quality in mind and prioritizing whole foods is essential. Fewer meals mean fewer opportunities to get in key nutrients the body needs. While we do not have strong evidence to support the importance of meal frequency, substantial evidence supports the overall health benefits of following a well-balanced, nutrient-rich diet.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025, a healthy diet should:

  1. emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free milk or dairy products
  2. include protein from various sources, including seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, soy products, and legumes
  3. stay within your allotted calorie needs
  4. limit added sugars, cholesterol, trans fats, and saturated fats.

The bottom line

Evidence is mixed about the importance of food frequency. While there is no solid evidence to suggest that one eating style is superior to the other, both can offer health and wellness benefits if you follow a healthy eating pattern.

Thus, it ultimately comes down to personal preference and which approach works best for you. Additionally, if you have certain health conditions, one style may benefit you over the other.

As always, consult your healthcare provider before making any significant changes to your diet.

By Editor

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