Meal frequency and portion size: what you need to know

It is widely accepted in modern culture that people should divide their daily diet into three large meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner. for optimal health. This belief derives mainly from the culture and first epidemiological studies.

In recent years, however, experts have begun to change their view, suggesting that eating smaller, more frequent meals may be the best way to prevent chronic disease and weight loss. As a result, more and more people are changing their eating habits in favor of several small meals throughout the day.

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

  • improving satiety or feeling full after a meal
  • increase metabolism and body composition
  • avoid energy drops
  • stabilize blood sugar
  • avoid overeating.

While a few studies support these recommendations, others show no significant benefit. In fact, some research suggests that sticking to three larger meals may be more beneficial.

Here’s what the research says.

Early epidemiological studies suggest that increased meal frequency may improve blood lipid (fat) levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. As a result, many experts advise against eating fewer, larger meals per day.

Over the years, some studies have confirmed these findings, suggesting that people who report eating small, frequent meals have better cholesterol levels than those who eat fewer than three meals a day.

In particular, a cross-section of 2019 study which compared eating less than three meals a day versus eating more than four meals a day found that eating 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 difference in total cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. It’s important to note, however, that this is an observational study, meaning it can only prove an association, not causation.

Additionally, a review published in the Journal of the American Heart Association Traffic concluded that greater eating frequency is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to epidemiological studies.

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

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

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

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

Results of another great observation study suggest that healthy adults can prevent long-term weight gain by:

  • eat less often
  • eat breakfast and lunch 5-6 hours apart
  • avoid snacking
  • eat the largest meal in the morning
  • fasting for 18-19 hours overnight.

Additionally, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific ReportDue 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.

Does Eating Frequent Meals Boost Metabolism?

Small, frequent meals are often touted as a panacea for obesity. Many believe that eating every 2-3 hours can help boost metabolism.

Digestion of food requires energy. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF). However, meal frequency does not appear to play a role in boost metabolism.

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

Although the evidence supporting increased meal frequency in the general population remains mixed, several experts believe that eating small, frequent meals may benefit athletes.

According to International Society of Sports Nutritionathletes on a calorie-restricted diet may benefit from small, frequent meals with enough protein, as this may help preserve lean muscle mass.

When prioritizing total daily calorie intake, limited evidence suggests that, in athletes, higher meal frequency may increase performancesupport fat loss and improve body composition.

People who eat more frequently are more likely to have higher quality diets. Specifically, those who consume at least three meals a day are more likely to have a higher intake of vegetables, green vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains and dairy products.

These people are also more likely to consume less sodium and added sugars than those who eat two meals a day.

Similarly, another 2020 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that increased meal frequency – about three meals a day – is associated with higher quality diets.

The researchers found that the frequency of snacks and the quality of the diet varied depending on the definition of snacks.

Based on the studies presented, no substantial evidence supports one eating pattern over another. Yet many of these studies also have limitations.

For example, there is no universally accepted definition of what a meal or snack is. This may impact the results of the study.

That said, both eating habits can be beneficial as long as the focus is on healthy eating habits.

Who Should Consume Small, Frequent Meals?

A review published in Nutrition in clinical practiceshows that some populations may benefit from 6 to 10 small, frequent meals. These include people who:

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

If your goal is to lose weight, it’s important to pay attention to your portion sizes. Be sure to stick to your allotted daily caloric needs and spread them out among the number of meals you eat.

For example, if you need 1,800 calories to maintain your weight and you choose to eat six small meals a day, each meal should contain about 300 calories.

Small, frequent meals often come in the form of ultra-processed foods and snacks that lack many essential nutrients your body needs. Thus, it is essential to focus on the quality of the food you consume.

Who should eat fewer larger meals?

People who may benefit from three larger meals a day include:

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

Again, it’s essential to keep diet quality in mind and prioritize whole foods. Fewer meals means fewer opportunities to get the essential nutrients the body needs.

Although we don’t have strong evidence to support the importance of meal frequency, substantial evidence supports the overall health benefits of a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet.

According to Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025a healthy diet should:

  • emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat or fat-free milk or dairy products
  • include protein from a variety of sources, including seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, soy products and legumes
  • stay within your allotted caloric needs
  • limit added sugars, cholesterol, trans fats and saturated fats.

The evidence is mixed on the importance of meal frequency. Although there is no solid evidence to suggest that one eating style is superior to the other, both can provide health and wellness benefits if you follow a healthy diet.

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

As always, consult your health care provider before making any major changes to your diet.

About John Tuttle

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