6 Small Meals a Day Plan?
Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney
Should you eat often to lose weight? A friend, your doctor, or your favorite health guru may have told you with some conviction that eating 6 small meals a day, as opposed to 2 or 3 large meals, can help you lose weight. If you are like most people, you are probably wondering whether something so simple might be the secret to permanent weight control. Should you really eat like a bird?
The advocates of eating frequent, small meals argue that large meals cause a much larger spike in insulin resulting in more of the calories being stored as fat. They also argue that a long time between meals leads to excessive hunger and overeating when you do sit down to a meal. The opponents of this idea claim that those arguments are nonsense and that eating frequent meals can cause you to lose track of the calories you have consumed.
The clinical studies on this subject have not been much help. Some studies show that more frequent food consumption during the day is associated with lower body weight, while other studies find no association between frequency of food consumption and weight.
Your friend may have also told you that consuming your calories earlier in the day will help prevent weight gain. You’ve probably heard the saying: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”. This hypothesis is on a bit stronger footing, but there are far too few studies on the subject.
With both of those concepts in mind, a recent study provides an excellent perspective.
Should You Eat Often to Lose Weight?
A recent study (Aljuiraban et al., Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 115: 528-536, 2015) used data from the International Study on Macro/Micronutrients and Blood Pressure to evaluate the relationship between frequency of eating and time of eating with caloric density (calories/serving), nutrient quality and BMI (a measure of body weight). The study included 2,696 men and women aged 40 to 59 years from both the United States and England. The dietary data were obtained from each participants on two consecutive days at the beginning of the study and again 3 weeks later.
The results of the study were:
- BMI was significantly less for those individuals consuming >6 meals per day than for those consuming <4 meals/day.
- BMI was also significantly less for those individuals consuming their calories early in the day than for those consuming most of their calories late in the day.
What Is The “Rest Of The Story”?
Those of you old enough to have heard the Paul Harvey radio show might remember that he would tell a fairly ordinary story. Then, after the commercial break, he would come back and tell “The Rest Of The Story”, and that was always the most interesting part of the story. This study is no different.
If this study had just measured associations with BMI, it would have been just another boring food frequency study that just happened to show an association between more frequent food consumption and lower body weight. However, it also evaluated the association of food frequency and food timing with many other parameters. This was the most interesting part of the study. This was “the rest of the story”.
- Those individuals consuming >6 meals/day had higher intakes of low fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables and lower intake of alcohol and red meats than those consuming <4 meals/day.
- Those individuals consuming >6 meals/day also consumed less energy dense foods, fewer total calories, and more nutrient rich foods than those individuals consuming <4 meals/day.
- Those individuals consuming >6 meals per day were much less likely to have their evening meal at a restaurant or cafeteria than those individuals consuming <4 meals/day.
- Similarly, those individuals consuming the majority of their calories early in the day also had higher intake of low fat dairy products, fruits and vegetables and lower intake of alcohol and red meat than those consuming the majority of their calories late in the day. They also consumed less energy dense foods, fewer total calories, and more nutrient rich foods.
- Although the difference was not statistically significant, it is perhaps worth noting that individuals consuming >6 meals/day tended to eat a higher percentage of their calories early in the day compared to individuals consuming <4 meals/day.
In other words, it was not necessarily the frequency or time of eating that was associated with body weight. It could simply have been the quality of the diet that determined body weight. It’s no secret that eating fewer calories, more fresh fruits and vegetable, eating lower fat dairy products, and consuming less alcohol and red meat is associated with a lower body weight. In today’s world of supersized portions, it’s also not surprising that frequently eating your dinner at restaurants is associated with higher weight.
What’s not clear from this study is why there was such a strong association between consuming a healthy, low calorie diet and frequency/timing of eating. It’s also not clear whether this is a universal association, or whether it was unique to this clinical study.
The Bottom Line
- A recent study has shown that BMI was significantly less for those individuals consuming >6 meals per day than for those consuming <4 meals/day. BMI was also significantly less for those individuals consuming the bulk of their calories early in the day compared to those consuming their calories late in the day.
- In both cases, it turns out that the individuals with lower BMI were also consuming healthier diets as measured by lower calorie intake, greater consumption of fruits, vegetables and low fat dairy and reduced consumption of alcohol and red meats.
- Consequently, it isn’t clear from this study whether low BMI is associated with frequency of eating, timing of eating, or simply the quality of the diet.
- The jury is still out on whether consuming frequent, small meals can help you lose weight. This just may be one of those approaches that works better for some people than for others.
- The preponderance of evidence suggests that consuming the bulk of your calories early in the day may help you lose weight, but the evidence is far from definitive at this point.
- However, there is universal agreement that eating a healthy, low calorie diet will help you lose weight. My money is with a healthy, low calorie diet.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.