But there are many other publications that discuss variations of the standard 3 meals a day. Others suggest to consume just two meals a day with a longer fasting period between dinner and breakfast.
Those suggesting smaller meals sizes hope to increase the metabolism, keep energy more even, keep blood sugar stable and prevent overeating.
Some studies show that smaller, more frequent meals are beneficial, but others say that sticking to three meals a day is better. In the following I review the pros and cons.
Relation of chronic disease to meal frequency
Eating 4 meals a day or more was found to lower triglyceride levels and to increase the protective HDL cholesterol levels. A Polish study from 2019 confirmed this in 495 patients. The total cholesterol and the LDL cholesterol were the same both in the experimental group and the control group who ate three meals per day or less. Other studies found that eating 4 meals or more per day led to less heart attacks and diabetes than in people who only consumed less than 3 meals a day.
Is weight loss related to meal frequency?
In a 2013 study from the University of Colorado a group of volunteers were eating 6 meals per day versus a control group eating 3 meals a day. The experiment lasted 4 days with a washout period of 1 to 2 days followed by crossover for another 4 days. There was no weight loss or weight increase noted between the group that consumed 6 meals per day in comparison to the group that consumed 3 meals a day. The group with 6 meals per day reported more hunger feelings. Many other studies came to the same conclusion that the frequency of meals does not contribute to weight gain or weight loss.
Frequent meals do not boost metabolism
Many physicians have suggested in the past that eating more often may stimulate the metabolism and lead to weight loss in comparison to fewer meals per day. However, scrutiny by researchers could not confirm this assumption. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is an increased metabolic rate after food intake. Food experts determined that a larger meal, carbohydrates, protein and low-fat plant-based diets increase the TEF. Essentially, food quantity and food quality determine weight loss, but not food frequency.
Consuming less food more often may boost athletic performance
A small segment of society, athletic performers, seem to benefit from eating smaller portions of food more often. This is described in this summary. This review found that smaller food helpings consumed more often lower total and LDL cholesterol. This helps the circulation and minimizes the risk for heart attacks. It leads to fat loss and improves performance.
Research showed that those who consume 3 meals a day eat more balanced food consisting of vegetables, legumes, fruit, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk and other dairy.
They tend to eat less salt and refined sugar. Researcher compared people consuming 3 meals a day to those who ate only 2 meals a day.
There is no conclusive evidence that there would be an advantage of eating smaller portions of food more often. But there is good evidence in the literature that quality of food matters.
Balanced meals contain:
- Vegetables, legumes, fruit, whole grains, low-fat and fat-free milk or other dairy as stated above
- Protein from various sources (seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes and organic soy products)
- Don’t exceed your calorie needs. You can determine that your weight stays healthy by weighing yourself daily with body composition scales
- Limit added refined sugars, saturated fat, cholesterol and trans fats
Who should consume smaller food portions more frequently
Some people are born with a condition of gastroparesis where food moves very slowly between the stomach and the small intestine. This condition is very rare and occurs only in 10 men and 40 women out of 100,000 people.
Another reason to consume small, frequent meals is when you want to gain weight or you experience early satiety with a meal. Gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, bloating or vomiting could be another reason to eat small, frequent meals.
Who should instead consume more substantial portions less often
Here are some reasons who should eat fewer, larger meals:
- If you have difficulties with portion control
- Those of you who have difficulties to eat mindfully
- If you are too busy and you don’t have the time to prepare several mini meals a day.
However, you must keep food quality in mind. As you eat less meals, your body depends even more on food quality. This way your body gets the key nutrients it needs.
There is no good research evidence that says that frequent meals are any better than less frequent meals. But there is abundant evidence that the quality of food matters. Avoid processed foods as the manufacturers often include unhealthy ingredients like refined sugar, salt and fat. Ensure that your food includes vegetables, legumes, fruit, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk and other dairy. It is a good idea to weigh yourself daily with body composition scales to monitor your weight. Before you make substantial changes to your diet, consult your physician about this topic.