Traditional family lifestyles mean most of us were brought up according to the widespread notion of ‘three-square meals a day’.
However, for a whole host of reasons, contemporary lifestyles have become more flexible than ever and most families have experienced times when this time-honoured pattern has been – at least temporarily – abandoned.
In a further development, some people have actually moved over to a pattern of more frequent meals in pursuit of health and weight loss benefits. This article considers the reasoning behind this lifestyle shift, and also looks at its effectiveness.
Even in the early 1960s, scientists were suggesting that weight gain was ‘ inversely related to the number of meals consumed daily’, and frequent ‘nibblers’ tended to have a leaner physique than ‘gorgers’.
Later studies comparing body mass index (BMI) also supported the early findings, observing that those with the lowest BMIs were also the ones eating more meals per day.
Metabolism and meal frequency
Most nutritionists believe that missing meals, and fluctuating meal patterns in general, are both highly counter-productive as regards weight loss. Taking this further, many popular diet plans advise eating breakfast early in the day, and certainly less than an hour after rising.
Other meals, it is suggested, should then follow at three-hour intervals, ceasing three hours prior to going to bed. This tends to imply five meals per day, and some diets advocate as many as six or seven.
The purpose of adopting a more frequent eating pattern, it seems, is to raise the baseline metabolic rate (BMR). This in turn helps to reduce the appetite and craving for food, whilst also raising energy levels. Many studies have shown this to be an effective strategy, though a few have returned inconclusive evidence.
The NHS disapproves of the idea that ‘missing meals will help… lose weight’, and reports that ‘eating regularly during the day helps to burn calories at a faster rate, as well as reduce the temptation to snack on foods high in fat and sugar.’
Suggesting dieters gradually reduce food intake by serving ‘smaller portions (on) smaller plates’, the NHS also points out that high-fibre foods assist dieting because they ‘keep you feeling full for longer.’
Though it seems not all the benefits of eating more often during the day are completely understood, researchers at least back the idea that eating regular meals has distinct metabolic advantages over irregular eating habits.
In addition, many experts believe the most important benefit dieters gain from eating smaller meals spaced more frequently throughout the day may actually be in keeping hunger pangs at bay.
In summary, the available evidence discounts eating erratically, or restricting yourself to two or three larger meals, coming down in favour of more regular, planned food consumption which leaves you feeling full. Whilst the metabolic benefits of ‘smaller meals more often’ have been identified, there is a suspicion that the reduced psychological stress of this method also plays a part.