Weight Loss: How Many Meals a Day? (cont.)

Gary Schwartz, a researcher with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, answered, "There's no strong data supporting either [three meals a day or six meals a day] as being more effective" for losing weight or maintaining lost weight. "Clearly there is an emphasis on reducing caloric intake overall, whether it be by decreasing meal size and/or decreasing meal frequency."

In a recent American Journal of Clinical Nutrition editorial, a team of nutrition researchers concluded that whether you are practicing the "three" or "six" meal daily dietary pattern, weight loss ultimately comes down to "how much energy (or calories) is consumed as opposed to how often or how regularly one eats."

So given the tried-and-true equation for weight maintenance: Calories "in" = Calories "out," what this really boils down to is whether eating five or six small meals a day truly helps us to:

  • Burn more total calories at the end of the day
  • Eat fewer total calories at the end of the day

As far as increasing the calories we burn, "The only thing that has been consistently shown to increase BMR is exercise," says Vicki Sullivan, PhD, RD, LD, national lecturer and president of Balance, LLC. Sullivan agrees that eating every three hours would certainly help some people control appetite and feel more energized, but she also believes that everyone is different. "I have clients who find that they gain weight when they eat more frequently, or some simply cannot eat every three hours due to job constraints."

Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, with the American Institute for Cancer Research, noted that in a recent study, the baseline metabolic rate (how fast the body burns calories) was unaffected by differences in meal timing. "Other studies also show that eating frequency has no effect on a person's overall metabolic rate," says Collins.

The answer to No. 2, it seems, can only be found within each individual. The truth is, the more times a day you sit down to eat a meal or snack, the more opportunities you have to overeat; this can be a serious problem for some people. If you are someone who has a difficult time eating a small amount at a meal or snack (you have a hard time stopping once you get started), then it's quite possible that, for you, eating five or six times a day isn't the best way to go.

The trick is eating when you are truly hungry but not so ravenous that you are at risk of overeating or eating out of control. To me, true hunger is when your stomach feels definitely empty; but once you feel this, don't go more than an hour without eating or you will move from truly hungry to ragingly ravenous. According to the ADA, eating every time you feel "slightly" hungry can result in overeating. Their remedy for this is to ask yourself these questions before a meal if you aren't sure:

  • Am I hungry? (If unsure, wait 20 minutes and ask yourself again)
  • When was the last time I ate? (If it's less than three hours, it may not be real hunger)
  • Could a small snack tide me over until the next meal? (Have ready-to-eat fruits or vegetables on hand for this)

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