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Many dieters often put stock in this concept – but new research might say otherwise.

Carolyn Land Williams, PhD, RDN
November 03, 2017

For years, we’ve been convinced that small, frequent meals are the best approach to eating and weight loss because they keep metabolism burning and appetite under control. But new research has led some to question this recommendation, so we decided to look at some of the reasons why eating five to six meals is recommended and compare them to current research to see how they really measure up.

Benefit #1: Eating 5 to 6 meals a day increases the body’s metabolism.

It’s true that your body burns calories during the digestion process (called the thermic effect of food), and these calories make up a component of your total calorie expenditure each day. So let’s assume, for comparison purposes, that you eat 1,800 calories each day. The principle of the thermic effect of food is what’s led some to speculate that eating smaller, more frequent meals increases your metabolism. In theory, dividing 1800 calories into six meals, rather than three, seems like it might increase total calories burned.

What the Research Says: Studies suggest there’s no significant change in energy burned over a 24-hour period when the same calories are broken into one to three meals or five to seven meals. Essentially, you burn the same calories in the digestion process no matter if you break it down into six meals of 300 calories or three meals of 600 calories.

CL Verdict: Do what works best for your body and schedule. It’s the total calories consumed each day that appear to be the most important—not the frequency or spacing of that food.

Benefit #2: Going long periods without eating slows metabolism.

We’ve all had busy days where you work through lunch or don’t even realize you’ve missed lunch. Many, including myself, have worried that going an extended time between meals may have a slowing effect on metabolism and reduce daily calories burned—a widely-held belief by even health professionals.

What the Research Says: The intermittent fasting trend has spurred lots of new research looking at what happens when the body goes for periods of time without eating. To many people’s surprise (including my own), the research suggests that going several hours without eating has little to no effect on metabolism. For those fasting, this often means 12 to 16 hours between dinner and the next day’s meal. Some results have even suggested that going longer between meals may slightly increase your calorie burn, the theory being that extended time between meals causes the body to tap into fat stores and burn a greater percentage of fat for energy.

CL Verdict: There’s a lot of information still being discovered, but the bottom line appears to be that eating less frequently doesn’t appear to slow metabolism. The best thing is to listen to your body’s hunger and energy cues.

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Benefit #3: Eating frequently controls appetite and reduces cravings.

I learned awhile back that the key for me to make consistent, healthy choices was to not let myself get too hungry or allow my blood sugar to drop too low – not to mention that this also helped maintain a nice demeanor. I routinely plan a morning and afternoon snack into my day, something that’s been recommended to control appetite and prevent binges.

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What the Research Says: In a 2013 study published in the journal of Obesity, researchers compared the effects of eating the same total calories divided into six meals against the effects those calories being divided into three meals. What they found was that individuals who ate only three meals a day reported significantly less hunger and more satiety, and other studies have had similar findings. Another interesting note is that the three-meals-per-day group didn’t have significant drops in blood sugar, suggesting that healthy bodies, when fed right, are pretty good at self-regulation.

CL Verdict: This seems to come down again to what works best for your body and schedule, so don’t feel pressure to eat if you’re not hungry or have a medical reason that requires it. Just pay attention to energy levels, and grab a healthy meal or snack before these get too low.

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So what does this all mean?

Research findings are all over the place, which means there is no clear right-or-wrong eating frequency or way to space meals. It also suggests that total calories consumed—and the foods that make up those calories—are the real determinant at this stage in the game. Your best bet is to determine what works best for you in terms of energy, hunger, and schedule.

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