Three meals a day or Six meals a day? Big meals or small meals? Does it matter?
Everybody eats. Which is why people are so willing to throw in their two cents when it comes to any nutrition debate. One thorny issue has to do with meal frequency and weight control. There are those who ‘just say no’ to snacking—the ones who restrict themselves to three meals a day, period. In their view, snacking is simply a bad habit that can pile on the pounds. In the opposite corner are those who say that several small meals will help control hunger, so it’s better to eat five or six times a day.
Is one strategy better than the other? Research has yet to give us a definitive answer, leading one1 to conclude that whether you eat three times a day or six, “The question of whether there is a health benefit…will ultimately depend on how much energy is consumed, as opposed to how often or how regularly one eats…” (italics mine). In other words, if it’s weight loss you’re after, the bottom line is keeping your calorie intake in check. Snacking in and of itself isn’t bad, unless it’s pushing your calorie intake past the tipping point.
If you look at what many people consider ‘snack foods’—greasy, salty, sugary packaged snacks like chips, cookies and candy—it’s easy to see why they’d adopt the ‘no snacking’ approach to weight management. If snacking = junk food, then yes, processed goodies can dump a lot of calories into your system in no time. Some people avoid snacking because they find it hard enough to just to curb their calories at mealtimes. If they find it hard to control what they eat at breakfast, lunch or dinner, they figure snacks will just add insult to injury.
Of course, there are plenty of healthy foods to snack on, which is just one reason that I side with the small, frequent meal approach. It’s a practical issue: the more often you eat, the more opportunities you have to meet your nutritional needs.
Let’s say you’re trying to get 7 to 10 fruit and vegetable servings a day, a couple of servings of dairy, and you have protein needs to meet, too. That might be hard to do if you try to distribute all that food over just three meals. But if you use snacks as an opportunity to work in more healthy fruits and vegetables, or maybe some calcium-rich yogurt, or an additional portion of protein, it’s a lot easier to hit your daily nutritional targets.
Here’s another thing: people who eat less frequently can convince themselves that they’ve ‘hardly eaten all day’—giving themselves license to do pretty much whatever they want when meal times roll around. Or, they assume that eating huge but less frequent meals will ‘hold them’ longer. That rarely happens. They usually end up snacking anyway.
Frequent feedings can really help with portion control. If you know you’ll be eating more often, you can teach yourself to be satisfied with less every time you eat, since you know you’ll be eating again in a few hours.
That’s the beauty of eating healthfully. High fiber fruits, veggies and whole grains have relatively few calories per bite, and low-fat protein foods help to satisfy hunger. That means you can eat every few hours, and still have quantity and quality—without spending huge amounts of calories.
1Parks EJ and McCrory MA. Am J Clin Nutr 2005; 81:3-4