This is a question I hear a lot! Many people express a belief that eating frequent small meals “keeps the metabolism going.” While there is, in theory, nothing wrong with eating frequent small meals, it’s not necessary to eat this way, and there can be drawbacks, depending on what one chooses to eat.
About that “ metabolism”: it’s actually called the basal metabolic rate (BMR). That’s the amount of calories that your body requires just to “mind the store”: beat your heart, keep you warm, grow your hair, fight off infections, etc. For adults with average activity levels, approximately 70% of our calories are spent this way, with only about 30% spent on activity. The myth is that, if we don’t eat every couple of hours, our bodies go into “starvation mode”, slowing down the BMR, and causing us to burn fewer calories overall. This does happen if we drastically restrict calories for more than a couple of days (which is one of the reasons that crash dieting doesn’t work). It doesn’t happen, however, if we go 4-5 hours without eating.
Here are links to research related to this topic:
- Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet
- Compared with nibbling, neither gorging nor a morning fast affect short-term energy balance in obese patients in a chamber calorimeter
- Effect of the pattern of food intake on human energy metabolism
So, if it’s not to rev up the metabolism, are there any reasons to eat more frequently? Maybe.
Eating multiple smaller meals can keep hunger at bay. However, if your main meals are adequate, with a good protein source (such as beans, tofu, fish, eggs, lean meats, dairy), whole grains and veggies, and have roughly a third of the calories you need in a day, they should hold you for the 4-5 hours from one meal to the next.
Taller or more active people, who need larger amounts of calories, may have a hard time getting them all in with just three meals, especially if they are healthy meals, loaded with high fiber, high water fruits and veggies. It may be easier for these folks to have one or two healthy snacks, comprised of some protein and other unprocessed tasty foods.
Or, you may just prefer to eat that way, which is completely fine.
The big drawback to eating six times a day is that this isn’t a perfect food world, and we don’t always make perfect food choices. Let’s face it, many of us already eat six times a day or more, if we count mindless grazing. To do a good job of frequent eating, we need to think about and plan six healthy little eating episodes each day. Even if one is a protein bar, we still have to plan to take it with us, or buy it. We may not have time for such planning in this modern, hectic world. Unplanned eating episodes are usually not nutritional shining stars!
You may decide on a compromise: Three smaller to medium-sized meals, with a healthy snack or two on some days, and just three medium to larger meals with no snacks on others. (And yes, the occasional frivolous snack that’s just for fun!)
Here are a few ideas for healthy snacks, on days that you go the more frequent meal route:
- 6-8 Triscuits with peanut butter
- A container of fat-free yogurt with a piece of fruit
- Hummus with a serving of corn chips
- A half cup of fat free cottage cheese with blueberries
- A protein bar, like a Balance or Clif bar (occasionally; whole, unprocessed foods are better for you)
Maryann Ludlow, RD, CD, CDE, is a registered dietitian at the UVM Medical Center.