Should we eat more meals, more frequently?
You’ve probably heard the advice before – that it’s better to eat more frequent, smaller meals, instead of three larger ones.
Once in a while new research also seems to emerge in favour of that idea.
One such piece of research was published in August this year in the Annals of Epidemiology. It found that was a reduced risk of dying from cardiovascular disease among those who ate more than six times a day.
While that sounds like great news, there’s more to the story than meets the eye, says Professor Katherine Samaras, from the Department of Endocrinology at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital.
Firstly, she notes, the evidence used in the research wasn’t very strong, as it only made an association between two factors and didn’t prove that one caused the other. Consequently, she says, the paper “does not conclusively show any benefit from eating six or more small meals a day”.
Even the researchers themselves say that those implementing public health recommendations should be “cautious” about these findings, because eating more frequently is associated with higher energy intake, which can lead to weight gain.
While the authors recommend caution, Professor Samaras goes one step further, saying it’s downright “dangerous” to tell people to eat like that.
“We are drowning in an excess of calories,” she says. “In a country where 50 to 60 per cent of the population are overweight or obese, this would be an unwise approach.”
Not only would eating more frequently likely lead to weight gain, she says it would also negatively affect other cardiovascular risk factors, creating a “worsened blood glucose and fat profile”.
Accredited Practising Dietitian Lyndi Cohen also has concerns about this notion.
She says eating lots of small meals is unlikely to be satisfying, meaning it can lead to overeating.
“If you’ve been left unsatisfied from your previous ‘meal’, you’re likely to keep obsessing about what food is coming next, fostering a bad relationship with food.”
The experts are also concerned that, even if you aim to eat six small ‘healthy’ meals a day, your diet is likely to spiral out of control.
They worry is that sooner or later your meal sizes would creep up. Then, you’d start snacking more. Cohen says when you’re eating that often, it could be tempting to want to “keep grazing” throughout the day.
Professor Samaras says simply exposing yourself to food that often is likely to cause a snowball effect.
“The more we see food, the more we wish to eat, and the more we do eat.”
Even worse, she says, “People tend to eat more food and the wrong foods when asked to eat more frequently, even if they start with all the right intentions.”
And, with six meals a day, there’s plenty of opportunity to slip up.
So is there any merit to the idea of eating more regularly? Does it at least fulfill its touted promise to ‘speed up your metabolism’ and provide you with even blood sugar levels?
Possibly, says Cohen, though she’s quick to note there’s no real advantage over eating three larger meals.
So if six meals aren’t superior, does that mean three meals a day is the ideal number?
Rather than eating a certain prescribed number of meals a day, Professor Samaras says eating habits should be based on individual need.
“My advice is simple: Don’t subscribe to eating a certain of number of times throughout the day.
“Simply listen to your hunger, respond to your body and stick to what works well for you.”
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