Breaking Down Pros and Cons of Mini Meals

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:
  • Eating more often isn't for everyone. If you have trouble stopping eating once you start, you may wind up overeating. "A lot of people with emotional eating problems just end up eating even more when they attempt to eat several mini meals," says Dean Anderson, a SparkPeople fitness coach and behavior psychology expert. "If your mini meals turn into large meals, or you have problems with discipline or portion control, then eating more often during the day might have negative consequences for you."
  • You don't have to cook several times a day. Do you find yourself wondering, “Who has the time to cook six meals?” One simple solution is to cook “regular” sized meals, and split them in half. Stick the other half in the fridge and eat it when you feel hungry later. And your "meals" can look more like "snacks," which can be easier to put together (see sample meal plan below).
  • Learn what hunger really feels like. Some people get crabby and others get uncomfortable hunger pangs. As soon as you notice your body's hunger signals, make sure you eat within an hour. Irregular eating patterns and skipped meals can confuse your body and mess up your metabolism. Plus, if you wait until you’re feeling ravenous, you may be more likely to overeat.
  • Eating more often may help curb hunger. Many people who follow a reduced-calorie weight loss plan struggle with hunger," says Anderson. "But eating more frequently throughout the day can help with feelings of fullness and satiety, so you're more likely to stick with your plan." If hunger is an issue for you, examine how often you're eating. You may be better off eating less per meal, but eating more meals throughout the day.
  • Eat balanced meals for the best results. Your mini meals should be nutritionally balanced, containing complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats. Each meal should be about half the size of a "normal" (3-meals-a-day-sized) meal. So when you eat these "mini meals," you take in the same calorie and nutrients by the end of the day, just with different timing.
  • Meet your calorie range by the end of the day. You should also meet your body's needs for all other key nutrients like protein, vitamins and minerals. One good way to do this is to decide how many meals you want to eat and divide your calorie goal by that number to find out how many calories each of your meals should contain. (So if you eat 1,800 calories per day, divide 1,800 by 6 to get 300, which means you'll eat six 300-calorie meals that day). You can do this with other nutrients, too, to get an idea of how much you need of certain things from each meal. (If you need 60 grams of protein each day, for example, then aim for 10 grams per meal.)
This is what a *sample day of mini meals might look like, based on a 1,800-calorie diet.
  • 7:30 am - 1/2 cup unsweetened juice; 1 slice whole wheat toast with 2 tsp margarine and spreadable fruit; 1 hardboiled egg (Nutrition Total: 320 calories; 44g carbs; 10g protein; 12g fat)
  • 10 am - 2 oz of natural cheese thinly sliced on 4 saltine crackers; 1 piece of fresh fruit; water/tea (Nutrition Total: 325 calories; 59g carbs; 15g protein, 19g fat)
  • 12:30 pm - 2 oz of turkey breast on whole wheat bagel with lettuce leaf and 2 slices of fresh tomato with 1 tablespoon of spicy brown mustard; 1 medium banana; 1/2 cup of 1% milk or soy milk (Nutrition Total: 405 calories; 76g carbs; 18g protein; 3g fat)
  • 3 pm - 1/2 cup of sugar free pudding; 4 vanilla wafers; 1/2 cup of 1% milk or soy milk (Nutrition Total: 211 calories; 30g carbs; 7g protein; 7g fat)
  • 6 pm - 2 oz of falafel with whole wheat pita halves; 1/2 cup of broccoli; water/tea (Nutrition Total: 386 calories; 60g carbs; 16g protein; 12g fat)
  • 8 pm - 1 oz almonds; 1/2 cup of unsweetened juice (Nutrition Total: 222 calories; 20g carbs; 6g protein; 14g fat)
*Sample meal plan created by Tanya Jolliffe, SparkPeople healthy eating expert.

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.