Meal Frequency and Portion Sizes: What 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 comes mainly from the culture and first epidemiological studies.

In recent years, however, experts have begun to change their perspective, suggesting that eating smaller, more frequent meals may be better for preventing chronic disease and losing weight. As a result, more people are changing their eating patterns in favor of eating several small meals throughout the day.

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

  • improve satiety or feeling full after a meal
  • increase metabolism and body composition
  • avoid power outages
  • stabilize blood sugar
  • avoid overeating.

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

This is 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 meals per day.

Over the years, some studies have backed up 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 from 2019 to study that compared eating fewer than three meals per day or more than four meals per day found that eating more than four meals raised HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol and lowered fasting triglycerides more effectively. Higher levels of HDL are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.

This study found no difference in total cholesterol or LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. However, it’s important to note that this is an observational study, which means it can only prove association, not causation.

Additionally, a review published in the journal of the American Heart Association Circulation concluded that higher feeding frequency is associated with a lower risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, based on epidemiological studies.

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

for example, one to study compared eating three meals a 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% 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 levels of hunger and desire to eat compared to those who ate three larger meals a day.

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

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

  • eat less often
  • eat breakfast and lunch 5 to 6 hours apart
  • avoiding snacks
  • eat the biggest meal in the morning
  • fast for 18-19 hours overnight.

Also, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Scientific report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory CommitteeDue 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 speed up metabolism?

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

The 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 eating fewer and larger meals can 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 the International Society of Sports Nutritionathletes following a low-calorie diet may benefit from eating small, frequent meals with adequate protein because it can help preserve lean muscle mass.

By prioritizing total daily caloric intake, limited evidence suggests that, in athletes, increased meal frequency may Increase performancesupport fat loss and improve body composition.

People who eat more frequently are more likely to have a better quality diet. Specifically, those who consume at least three meals a day they are more likely to have a higher intake of vegetables, greens, 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 a higher frequency of meals, approximately three meals per day, is associated with a higher quality diet.

The researchers found that snacking frequency and diet quality varied by definition of snacking.

Based on the studies presented, there is no substantial evidence to support one eating pattern over the other. However, many of these studies also have limitations.

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

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

Who Should Eat Small, Frequent Meals?

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

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

If your goal is to lose weight, it’s important to consider portion sizes. Be sure to stay within your allotted daily caloric needs and divide it by 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 be about 300 calories.

Small, frequent meals often come in the form of ultra-processed foods and snacks that don’t provide many of the vital nutrients your body needs. Therefore, it is essential to focus on the quality of the food you eat.

Who should eat fewer and larger meals?

People who can benefit from three larger meals per day include:

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

Again, it is essential to consider the quality of the diet and prioritize whole foods. Fewer meals means fewer opportunities to get the key nutrients your body needs.

While we don’t 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 2020-2025a 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 meats and poultry, eggs, nuts, seeds, soy products, and legumes
  • stay within your allotted calorie needs
  • limit added sugars, cholesterol, trans fats, and saturated fats.

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

So it 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 significant changes to your diet.

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