When it comes to the optimal meal frequency, there’s a lot of conflicting information available. Some sources claim that fasting until midday is the way forward. While others insist that breakfast is integral for kick-starting the metabolism.
There are also some who claim that frequent healthy snacking helps to keep the metabolism ticking along, while controlling blood sugar levels and keeping hunger pangs to a minimum. The goal of this approach is that you end up consuming less as a result. However, it may not always work that way.
One particular study, conducted by the University of Ottawa, found that there was no particular weight loss advantage when consuming a low-calorie diet over six meals a day, rather than three. That being said, the multitude of studies out there provide mixed results on meal frequency. Sadly, it is unclear whether or not more frequent meals help with weight loss.
How many meals a day for weight loss?
There is no ‘perfect’ healthy meal plan, or fixed number of meals, that works for everybody. When it comes to weight loss, what you eat is more important than the number of meals you eat. Healthy and nutritious meals, served in adequate portion sizes, interspersed with frequent healthy snacking, should help you lose weight, and stop any unhealthy cravings.
A healthy diet should consist of lots of fruit and vegetables, different types of whole grains, and lean protein.
The quality of the food, the calorific content, and the portion sizes are the main factors to focus on.
So if meal frequency doesn’t make an impact on weight loss, then what does?
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Does eating more frequently increase metabolic rate?
Your metabolic rate refers to the number of calories that your body burns within a certain amount of time.
The idea that consuming frequent, small meals increases your metabolic rate simply isn’t true.
While it’s true that the metabolism raises slightly when your body is digesting a meal, it is actually the amount of food consumed that determines how much energy is used during the digestive period. This is called the thermic effect.
Whether you’re consuming three meals constituting 800 calories each, or six meals made up of 400 calories each, the thermic effect is the same.
There have been multiple studies that have compared the consumption of smaller frequent meals with fewer larger meals. These have shown that there is no significant difference in the effect on the metabolic rate or overall weight loss success.
Does eating more frequently balance blood sugar levels and reduce cravings?
There’s a common argument that frequent, smaller meals, will balance blood sugar levels.
It’s believed that larger meals, three times a day, will cause extreme spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. Whereas smaller meals, consumed more frequently, will help stabilize blood sugar levels over the course of the day.
This claim, however, is not supported by science. In fact, a study published in the European e-Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism showed that people who eat large meals, less frequently, have lower blood sugar levels, on average.
While they may experience higher spikes in blood sugar levels, their average levels are lower. For those who have blood sugar issues, this is particularly important, as an overall high blood sugar level can cause issues.
It has also been proven that less frequent eating reduces hunger, and increases satiety, compared to smaller, more frequent meals.
A clinical trial ascertained that breakfast plays a role in controlling blood sugar levels, demonstrating that eating your largest meal in the morning lowers your average daily blood sugar levels.
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What about eating breakfast?
It’s widely agreed that breakfast is an important component in starting your day. Breakfast kickstarts the metabolism for the day ahead, helping with weight loss.
Additionally, there are observational studies that have found that those who skip breakfast have a higher likelihood of being obese than those who eat breakfast each day.
However, it’s important to remember that this data is not solid proof that eating breakfast helps with weight loss. It simply demonstrates that consuming breakfast is associated with a lower risk of obesity.
One of the reasons that this could be is that those who skip breakfast may be less focused on their health, than those who consume breakfast. By failing to eat breakfast, the subsequent hunger pangs may lead them to make unhealthier choices, such as a large fast food meal for lunch.
Given that it’s universally agreed that breakfast is a good way to start the day, those who commit to healthier habits are more likely to start their day with breakfast.
While, there isn’t any evidence to suggest that eating breakfast kick-starts the metabolism, eating breakfast might benefit some aspects of health. For example, there is evidence to suggest that the body’s control of blood sugar levels is better during the morning.
This means that a larger breakfast, over a larger dinner, results in a lower average blood sugar level.
What about skipping meals from time to time?
The concept of ‘intermittent fasting’ has been around for quite some time now. Essentially, it means that you avoid eating at certain times of the day, allowing a small window of time during the day in which eating is permitted. Alternatively, some opt to eat normally 5 days a week, then fasting for two 24-hour periods.
Many fear that this approach means that the body switches into “starvation mode”, and that you’d start to lose muscle mass. However, studies prove otherwise, demonstrating that in the beginning, short-term fasting can cause the metabolic rate to increase. It’s only after long periods of fasting that the metabolic rate decreases.
Studies conducted on both humans and animals demonstrate that intermittent fasting can improve insulin sensitivity, lower glucose levels, and provide several other health benefits.
The upside of more than three meals per day
It’s clear that eating smaller meals throughout the day may not directly increase your metabolism or help you to lose weight. However, it could help you with your weight loss goals in other ways. By waiting a long time between meals, we’re likely to approach each meal with higher levels of hunger, contributing to an increased risk of overeating. This demonstrates why breakfast is such an important meal, as it satiates hunger after 8 hours of sleep, and provides us with the energy to start our day.
Those who eat breakfast tend to weigh less than those who skip this meal. Plus, they’re also more likely to get more nutrients, including vitamins A, B12, and D. It’s also possible that they’re more likely to resist making unhealthy food cravings, driven by hunger pangs.
How to snack the right way
Snacking is usually considered to be the enemy of weight loss success. However, when done correctly, frequent grazing can help keep cravings at a minimum, helping you to lose weight.
To snack properly, it’s important to consume snacks containing many nutrients, such as:
- Fresh fruit with a low-fat cheese
- Raw vegetables with 1/4 hummus
- Whole-grain crackers with one tablespoon of nut butter
- 1/4 cup of trail mix (nuts, dried fruits, and whole-grain cereal)
- 1 cup non-fat Greek yogurt, served with a selection of fresh berries
Whatever your approach to meal frequency, it’s important that the food you consume is high in nutrients. Avoid junk foods and processed foods, as they’re high in calories, and low in nutrients.
High-fiber carbohydrates and proteins are the ideal options, as they fill you up without contributing to rapid weight gain.
If you find that you struggle to control the size of your portions, it might be best to stick to three meals a day, rather than risk overeating with 5, oversized, meals a day.
Additionally, avoid shopping when hungry, and make sure you stick to a shopping list. This will help you to avoid making unhealthy choices when you’re out and about.
What matters more than how many meals a day you eat
The key to a healthy meal plan hinges on what you eat, rather than the frequency of meals. Healthy eating means consuming a balanced diet, consisting of nutrient-filled whole foods, and lean sources of protein. Ensure to consume plenty of fruits and vegetables, and opt for grains such as brown rice, over refined grains.
Ultimately, the quality of the food you eat, and the amount you consume, are the things that will make a difference in weight management.
The bottom line
The key to maintaining a healthy weight is through a commitment to healthy habits. Committing to regular exercise, healthy meals, and portion size control will help you on your mission to lose weight.
Meal planning is also a great way to stick to your weight loss program. Take the time to decide on some healthy meal plans for the week ahead, as being organized will help you to stay on track.
Making smart choices such as switching out chocolate bars for more fruit, and opting for some plain yogurt and berries over a packet of crisps, will help you on your way to healthy eating, one step at a time.
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