The research linking weight and meal frequency is fuzzy. A recent study suggests that it’s not the number of meals you eat that matters, but the total number of calories consumed. While both the overweight and normal-weight participants reported eating three meals a day, the thinner ones ate fewer calories even though they reported eating one more snack a day.
“Eating the right foods at the right time helps keep your blood sugar steady, but eating frequently is not a ticket to overeat,” says Sari Greaves, R.D., nutrition director at the Step Ahead Wellness Center in Bedminster, N.J.
Here’s the latest evidence for different meal plans:
- Three Meals. It’s the magic number, according to a January 2011 review that found that eating one or two meals a day left people hungrier than eating three meals a day, even when they consumed the same number of calories.
- Eating Less. Another study of 15 middle-aged adults compared eating three meals a day with just one large dinner. The breakfast, lunch, and dinner diet was linked to lower blood pressure, lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and feeling fuller. But those who ate just one meal a day had higher HDL (good) cholesterol and better glucose levels. Researchers said there are benefits to fewer meals, but the key is to cut your overall calories.
- Six Meals. Eating six meals a day on a regular schedule has been associated with lower overall calorie intake, and lower total and LDL cholesterol compared with an irregular meal plan of three to nine meals a day, according to British researchers.
- Bottom Line. If you’re watching your waistline, research suggests that eating three meals a day, with a healthy snack thrown in, will curb hunger pangs. If you opt for smaller, more frequent meals (about 300 to 4– calories each), stick with those that are nutrient-dense, like lean meats, low-fat dairy, and produce. You can use a notebook as a food diary to keep tract of your calories.
If you don’t have much of an appetite, focus on larger meals that contain high-quality protein like egg whites, healthy fat like almond or peanut butter, and lower carbohydrates, such as Greek yogurt, to remain full longer.