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.
What about weight loss and metabolism benefits? Hand says that research analysts from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have synthesized years of research on adult weight management to form nutrition guidelines. One topic they've analyzed is the effect of regular meal and snack patterns on weight loss. "Several studies show that eating four to five times per day (meals or snacks) is associated with reduced or no obesity risk," she says. The research also shows that the three squares a day could actually hurt your efforts to reach and/or maintain a healthy weight. "Eating less than three meals or snacks per day may increase the risk of obesity," says Hand. "But the risk goes up when people eat six or more times per day, too."
Physiologically, it does make sense: "When you eat regularly throughout the day, your body knows that more food is on the way, and it's more likely to burn the calories you consume than store them as fat," Hand explains. She also says that eating at regular intervals may help stabilize blood sugar and energy levels. But as far as the rest of the health claims are concerned, well-researched proof is lacking. So, while eating more often throughout the day appears to help with weight control, it "could potentially benefit your health, but not necessarily," says Hand.
If five to six meals a day sounds appealing to you, try it. If not, stick with what works for you, but don’t stress. Enjoying three squares a day is a perfectly healthy way to eat, and there are far more important things you can focus on, besides meal frequency: like how much food you’re eating in general. One thing to try, if you don't snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon, is to incorporate small snacks along with your three daily meals—but watch that you don 't exceed your calorie allotment for the day.
If you decide to delve into the world of mini meals, here are some things to consider:
Whether you choose three meals or six, eating on a consistent schedule is better for you than irregular eating patterns. "It's all about finding what works for you," says Hand. "The bottom line is that you should distribute your total calorie intake throughout the day." She recommends four to five meals/snacks per day, including breakfast. "Whether you eat three meals or several, as long as you're meeting your nutrient needs, making healthy food choices most of the time, and eating on regular intervals, you'll be on your way to reaching your health and weight goals."
This article has been reviewed and approved by Becky Hand, Licensed and Registered Dietitian.
Editor's Note: Did you know that SparkPeople's Nutrition Tracker allows you to add/customize as many meals and snacks as you want to track in a day? To do so, log in and visit your Nutrition Tracker. At the bottom of the Food Tracker, you'll find a link that says "Click to add/edit extra meals."
Do mini meals work for you, or do you prefer the classic three? Share your experience in the comments section to the right.