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Nutrition Articles  ›  Meals and Food

Eat More Often, Lose More Weight

The Benefits of Eating Several Small Meals Each Day

-- By Liza Barnes & Nicole Nichols, Health Educators
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When I was a kid, I played four-square on the playground and learned to eat three square meals a day. Now my meals are supposed to be shaped like a pyramid and I've heard I’m supposed to be eating them six times a day. Is anyone besides me confused?

Meal frequency has been the subject of debate among nutrition experts for decades. The one thing about which almost everyone agrees on is that breakfast is essential. Eating a meal of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats within an hour or so of rising can rev up your metabolism and give you fuel for an active day. But how big should it be? And how long after breakfast should you eat your next meal? And what about the one after that?

You may have heard some nutrition and weight loss experts say that people should eat "mini meals" every two to three hours, or four to six times per day. Proponents of this idea claim that eating small meals throughout the day can lower cholesterol, promote weight loss, improve energy levels, boost metabolism, and preserve lean muscle mass. "It sounds good in theory, but there isn't much proof to back most of these claims," says Becky Hand, a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. There is research to support at least one of these claims: In a 2001 study published in The British Medical Journal, researchers found that people who ate six small meals a day had a 5 percent lower average cholesterol level than people who ate one or two larger meals.
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About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.

Member Comments

  • Last year on my doctor's advice I tried 6 mini meals (200-300 calories) every 2-3 hours. It went okay, but the biggest drawback was in staying on the schedule. It seemed like when I was late by even 15 minutes, it threw the rest of my schedule into utter chaos.

    I now eat 3 regular meals every day plus a light snack (approx 100 cal) in the early afternoon and evening. Seems to work - never starving & not continuously watching a clock. This plan is helps me be more in tune with my body's hunger signals. - 3/28/2014 2:53:47 PM
  • I have been eating 3 meals and 2 snacks each day --- it seems to be working - 11/4/2013 7:48:50 AM
  • BERNARDAG
    I am picky about the food That I am eating, usually I am eating every 3 hours to keep the metabolism up like a machine, I love eat row veggies as snack (carrots, tomatoes, celery) and also I don't include to much starchy carbs in my meals and you know the most reward thing for me is that the.clothes that I wearing fit beautifully on me, I almost in my right weight but it takes time and discipline. - 10/23/2013 12:38:04 PM
  • Weight gain has resulted for a majority of people, already struggling with portion control and food addiction, who try to follow this advice.

    No two people are the same. But O*P*E*N your eyes and look around you. In the States at least, this is bogus diet advice, the latest diet fad.

    Like most people, I tried this advice and gained weight.

    It wasn't until I found, and followed, the No S Diet (thanks to SP for the intro!), that I got my eating under control. Thank you thank you thank you THANK YOU, No S Diet, for a return to eating sanity, commonsense, relearning intuitive eating and relearning moderation, great-grandma's way of eating!, with an end to "diet head", food obsession, food rules, counting, weighing, measuring, tracking, and obsession. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU No S Diet for an end to diet depravity, insanity, and putting food back into it's rightful, SMALL, place in my life. Life is for living; not for following dieting rules and and obsessions with the latest eating fad. - 9/15/2013 9:21:50 PM
  • NESIANPEARL
    I have three small meals and two snacks spread out about three hours apart. I used to do three meals about five hours apart but found I was getting too hungry, light headed even. Five "meals" definitely works better for me, my next meal is never too far away, my energy levels are more stable, I don't get too hungry, and it encourages me to make the effort to eat regularly, because I know if I have one meal late, all the others will be late too. - 9/14/2013 10:47:14 PM
  • 6 mini meals per day = constant focus on eating and food + never feeling satisfied by a real meal. Mini-meals may work for some, but 3 squares work better for many. Do what works for you, despite the fads. - 9/12/2013 1:00:30 PM
  • I have to eat small meals right now because I can't do know exercise because of my hip. - 7/9/2013 5:24:27 PM
  • KOTASMA
    @ EMCKERN- If you are eating only 955 calories per day, this could be your problem. I've always heard that it is unhealthy to eat less than 1200 calories per day. - 5/28/2013 2:55:08 PM
  • EMCKERN
    I eat small meals and a few snacks daily and I exercise. My problem is that my metabolism is so slow that I have to consume less than 1,000 per day to lose weight. I'm 216 lbs and have had some success when consuming 800-900 calories per day. I try to walk 1-2 miles 2-3 days per week. I'm hoping to add more exercise soon. I've had my thyroid checked several times over the years and have been to an endocrinologist, to no avail. Guess I'm one of the unlucky ones that needs to work a little harder to lose weight.
    A typical diet day for me is as follows:
    Breakfast: Yogurt - 80 calories
    snack: kiwi - 50 calories
    lunch: salad with tomatoes, onions, red peppers, 2 TBS dressing, croutons - 375 cal.
    snack: med. orange - 75 calories
    dinner: grilled chicken breast - 150; steamed broccoli - 75; milk - 150
    Total: 955 calories.
    Straying even a little....say 250 calories will cause a weight gain.
    If anyone out there has similar problem, I would like to hear from them.

    - 5/9/2013 10:52:12 PM
  • Oh yes I need to eat a bunch of mini meals I do a lot more protein works for me - 5/9/2013 7:33:37 PM
  • Wow! Carbs galore! Pre-lunch and you're already at about 100g carbs?? I'd be starving all day. I do eat 4 or 5 times a day, and I find that works for me, but only if I make sure I get a good amount of protein and fat in at every 'meal'. - 5/9/2013 4:41:45 PM
  • I have successfully lost 25 pounds eating small meals more often. That works for me. - 5/9/2013 1:39:18 PM
  • I found that eating small meals did not satisfy the emotional side of eating. I didn't feel like I was eating a meal, especially dinner. - 5/9/2013 1:12:25 PM
  • C83WOLFE
    I do not believe in the mini meals myth. Even Jillian Michaels says it's a myth in her book. I've had success eating three meals a day, nothing else. So if you're like me and like 3 square meals a day, don't succumb to this myth and try changing your eating habits. Do what's right for you. - 5/9/2013 10:57:28 AM
  • I am a runner and I absolutely love carbs. However, I too think that the plan provided could've been a little better (more veggies/fiber). Overall, eating 5 times/day works great for me but my snacks are apples, yogurt, almonds etc. I agree with KWING517 comment - it's all about moderation (that carrot cake sounds darn yummy!) - 5/9/2013 10:36:40 AM