Myth or fact: smaller more frequent meals are more effective for weight loss and maintenance than three larger meals per day? We often get caught up in this debate but what is true about meal timing and frequency and what does the research say…
- Consume more calories earlier in the day.: A study performed by researchers at UCLA recruited generally healthy, nonsmokers who were African-American (48%) and non-Hispanic White (52%) aged between 21-69 years (1). At baseline, participants were metabolically and weight stable for the previous six months. During the study period, participants maintained their usual diet and physical activity and completed 8, 24 hour diet recalls and physical activity questionnaires. 239 individuals (156 females, 83 males) were included in the analysis. The results suggested that consuming more of the day’s total energy intake earlier in the day was associated with a lower risk of being overweight or obese, and eating more of the day’s totally energy intake during the evening is associated with a higher risk of being overweight or obese (1). These associations were unchanged even after adjusting for physical activity and total daily energy intake. Another similar study performed at Northwestern University demonstrated that meal timing was associated with overall energy intake but not with Body Mass Index (BMI). After controlling for age, gender, sleep duration, and timing; researchers found eating more frequently, later timing of the last meal, and a shorter duration between last meal and going to sleep predicted higher total caloric intake(2). Results suggested that later relative timing of meals, particularly eating close to sleep, could lead to weight gain due to a greater number of eating occasions and higher total daily caloric intake (2).
- Consuming frequent meals may not promote weight loss.: The previously discussed research study conducted at Northwestern University and another conducted at the University of Ottowa, demonstrated that consuming more frequent meals does not have any significant impact on weight loss / maintenance. The University of Ottowa study found that subjects randomized to two treatment groups (i.e. 3 smaller meals + 3 snacks vs. 3 larger meals ) with similar energy restriction saw no significant difference fat loss, satiety, or gut peptides (peptide YY and ghrelin) (3). In addition, the Northwestern University study demonstrated that consuming more frequent meal was associated with higher energy intake (2). Both studies support that overall energy intake and expenditure (i.e. being in energy deficit or balance) is of greater importance for weight loss and maintenance than meal frequency.
- Increase frequency and total protein intake.: Increasing total protein intake and frequency of protein consumption (consuming protein at each meal / snack) has shown to improve total body fat, abdominal body fat, lean body mass, and leptin levels (4). Improvements are more significant on a calorically restricted diet while maintaining higher protein intake (4).
- More frequent meal are important for athletes / highly active individuals:. More frequent meals / snacks are important for athletes or highly active individuals to perform optimally during workouts and recover properly. Athletes should consume a higher carbohydrate meal or snack 1-3 hours prior to workouts. Following workouts, a meal or snack consisting of 20-25g protein and 60-100g of carbohydrate will help to build muscle and restore glycogen.
By: Lauren Higgins, M.S., CSCS, FMS-level 1
- Wang J.B., Patterson R.E., Ang A., Emond J.A., Shetty N. & Arab L. (2014) Timing of energy intake during the day is associated with risk of obesity in adults. J Hum Nutr Diet. 27 (Suppl. 2), 255–262 doi:10.1111/jhn.12141.
- Reid, K.J., Baron, K.G., Zee, P.C. (2014) Meal timing influences daily caloric intake in healthy adults. Nutr Res. 34(11): 930–935. doi:10.1016/j.nutres.2014.09.010.
- Cameron, J.D., Cyr, M.J, Doucet, E. (2010) Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy –restricted diet. British J Nutr. 103: 1098-1101. doi:10.1017/S0007114509992984.
- Arciero, P.J., et al. (2013) Increased protein intake and meal frequency reduces abdominal fat during energy balance and energy deficit. Obesity. 27(7): 1357-1366.