Food and Nutrition

6 Small Meals or 3 Big Ones: When Should We Eat?

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I stated in my last post that we cannot trust “hunger” as a cue for when to eat. But how do we know when it IS time to eat? For me, and I suspect for many others, the three-meals-a-day “rule” works well. In fact, I believe that for most people who struggle with weight control, eating more often, “grazing,” or snacking between meals only adds to the problem.

Now, many of you believe that six or more small meals per day, or three meals plus two or three snacks, is best (e.g., see comment by Personal Trainer on my last post). And for some people there is a medical reason for eating more often than three times per day (e.g., people with dyspepsia, GERD, hypoglycemia, etc.). Some of these medical indications are valid, and some are not. I won’t get into that here.  What I do know is that the more we snack, the more likely we are to consume excess calories (see this research report).

A survey reported this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in the thirty years between the 1970s to the early 2000s, for adults and children, the average time between eating occasions shrank by one hour (most recently, 3 hours apart for adults and 3.5 hours apart for children). Daily calories for both groups increased from roughly 2,090 in the 1970s to 2500 in the 2003 – 2006 period.

Calories from snacks more than doubled: for adults, from 200 calories per day in the 1970s to 470 calories in the recent time period; for children, from 240 to 500. A significant portion of snack calories came from beverages. It can be assumed that these numbers are underestimates, since surveys usually under-report the number of calories consumed. [The above research was described in the May 2010 issue of Nutrition Action Health Letter]

It makes sense to me that the more often one eats, the more one is exposed to temptation and calories. Also, we know that “willpower fatigue” occurs, so that the more often we have to decide what and how much to eat, the less “willpower” we are left with by the end of the day.

One known cause of overeating, which is also closely related to snacking, is “emotional eating.”  The solution to that problem is mindful eating, plus tending to emotional issues in a more appropriate way.

Personally, one of the most effective things I have done over the years to maintain my weight in a healthy range is to eliminate snacking. It takes some getting used to — for example, eating dessert just before bed was a longtime habit for me — but it really makes a difference. And I haven’t developed hypoglycemia, insomnia, or any other health problem as a result.

If eating three daily meals (assuming the portions are reasonable and the food is mostly “healthy”) works to maintain weight, would two meals be even better? Apparently not, according to several studies. People who skip breakfast, for example, tend to weigh more than people who don’t.