Q. If you want to control your weight, is it better to eat three meals a day, or should you eat more, smaller meals?
There is no scientifically proven answer to this question. Until there is, I'd suggest simply reducing your total food intake for each day until your weight goes down.
[Personal note: I've struggled to keep pounds off all my life. I've learned that calories count. You take in more than you burn; you gain weight. You burn more than you eat; you lose weight. Exercise helps, but the calorie burn-off usually doesn't amount to much. The best exercise is pushing yourself away from the table.]
Eating a bunch of small meals a day instead of breakfast-lunch-dinner has been part of the popular media, which means you should be hearing “fad alert” in your head. Here are some of the claims:
- The body burns calories to digest. Eating six to eight meals a day enables your body to use more calories to aid digestion.
- Eating lots of meals rather than three will boost metabolism and control blood sugar.
- More meals means less stored fat in the body.
- When people consume the same number of calories in a single daily meal rather than three, they show significant increases in blood pressure, total cholesterol levels and levels of bad LDL cholesterol.
- Eating every three-to-four hours can ward off hunger and prevent binges that lead to weight gain.
- Eating more often helps regulate proper digestion to prevent gastrointestinal problems.
- Eight meals a day will increase energy levels and accelerate muscle growth.
To repeat, there is no proof that eating more frequently does any of the above.
My own conclusion about weight control was confirmed in an editorial that appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. A team of nutrition researchers concluded that weight loss comes down to "how much energy (or calories) is consumed as opposed to how often or how regularly one eats."
However, there was a recent study that indicated we may be better off eating only three meals a day. The study was done on mice, so the findings have to be confirmed by tests on humans.
Satchidananda Panda, a regulatory biologist at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, led the study published by the journal Cell Metabolism.
Panda and his team put groups of mice on different eating regimens for 100 days. Mice in two of the groups ate high-fat, high-calorie food. One of these groups was allowed to snack throughout the night and day. The other group had access to the calorie-loaded food only for eight hours at night, when they were most active. A control group of mice ate normal food, not the high-calorie food.
The mice that ate only for eight hours were almost as lean as mice in a control group that ate regular food. But the mice that ate around the clock became obese, even though they consumed the same amount of fat and calories as their counterparts on the time-restricted diet.