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6 Small Meals or 3 Meals a Day?

Recently on my Facebook page, a friend asked about whether it's better to snack or to eat meals. It's been a hot debate in the media about what is best for your body and for weight maintenance. Of course, in true nutrition fashion, I don't believe there is an easy answer to the question.

You've probably heard about the research that highlights the benefits of eating 6 small meals a day. At the very least, you've probably seen a push for 4 or 5. The general idea from this research is that:

  • you keep your metabolism going (see below)
  • you keep your blood sugar more constant
  • you stave off hunger
  • this should ultimately lead to you eating less calories

When we talk about the number of calories that our body burns each day, one of the factors is called the thermic effect of food (TEF). Your body requires energy to digest food - that's where the "celery is a negative calorie food" idea comes from. It's somewhat of a flawed idea, but you get the idea. The percent of calories that are burned due to TEF could be as much as 10% of the eaten calories, but it's probably closer to 5%. For that person eating 2000 calories a day, it's about 100 calories. 

What affects TEF? Does amount of food or frequency of food consumed make a difference? To use a car analogy, think about the amount of gas it takes for your daily commute. Say it's 5 miles each way. Over the course of the week you drive 50 miles in your commute. What if you drove those same 50 miles in just one trip? It would require less gas, but probably not that much. We're talking a few dollars over the course of a month.

The real issue with gas is the quality of those miles - whether you're driving on the highway or in the city, right? The same is true when it comes to food. The quality of that food matters more than how it's broken up over the day. We actually burn more calories when we eat whole foods instead of processed foods. I'm going to dive more into this on another post, but for now, hold that truth in your mind :)

Let's go back to the basic premise of the small frequent meals - that you will ultimately eat less calories. But what if you DON'T actually eat less?

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As one of my professors in grad school said, "Every time you eat is a chance to overeat." When you divide 1500 calories by 5 meals, each one is only 300 calories. This may feel fine at breakfast, but will it still work for you around 6 or 7 pm?

Another factor with those smaller meals is that the type of food you are eating. You are more likely to eat snack foods if you're focused on really small meals. Let's be honest, if you're looking for a 300 calorie meal, you're more likely to eat something closer to a protein bar than vegetarian chili. This might mean that you eat less variety of foods, and it might mean that you never really feel like you ate a meal. It could lead to a constant state of bring unsatisfied by your food choices. Not conducive to weight loss.

The final negative side to eating frequently is that you could fall into the trap of constant grazing. There is NO research that indicates this is a good choice! For starters, you will likely eat much more. But the worst thing, in my opinion is that your body is constantly in a fed state, which means that it is constantly producing insulin. We associate insulin with carbohydrates or sugar, but did you know that the presence of insulin prevents the body from using fat as a source of energy? Which means that any fat in the meal you ate is now running through your blood (high triglycerides, anyone?), and that you're not burning that stored fat. Not desirable effects!

Where does this leave us?

It goes back to a personal preference. If you have trouble controlling portion sizes, or you don’t have time to prep healthy snacks, you may be better off with a traditional 3 meals a day. But if leaving too much time in between meals leaves you feeling sluggish, hangry, or prone to overeating, then schedule in snacks or smaller meals.

If you're going to eat smaller meals or snacks, you want to leave at least 2 hours in between. This allows your body to get to the fasting state, where it's not longer producing insulin. It gives you the benefits of the smaller meals without some of the downsides.

Remember that nutrition is personal - what works for your best friend or significant other might not work for you. Maybe you need to try a new routine to see what works best for your body and lifestyle. The bottom line is that the number of calories you eat and the number of calories you burn is more important than the timing or frequency of those calories. Don't make it harder than it needs to be by creating extra rules for yourself :)