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Experts debate how often we should eat for weight loss.

Experts debate how often we should eat for weight loss.

WebMD Feature

To eat three meals a day or to eat six small meals a day: that is the question. If you have heard about or read Jorge Cruise's new book, The 3-Hour Diet, you would bet the answer is the latter. But many nutrition researchers out there say, "not so fast!"

Cruise's plan boasts a three-point approach: eat breakfast within one hour of rising, eat every three hours, and stop eating three hours before bedtime. He says this ritualized way of eating increases BMR (baseline metabolic rate), increases energy levels, and decreases appetite, among other things. While many nutrition experts agree that when it comes to weight loss irregular eating patterns and skipped meals can mean trouble for most of us, there isn't anything close to a consensus on whether we are metabolically better off eating three regular meals a day or spreading that out into five or six smaller meals.

Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director of CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest) would like to see the studies Cruise used to formulate his 3 Hour Diet. "If there are any good studies proving his point, they certainly aren't well established," says Liebman.

And ADA spokeswoman Noralyn Mills, RD, believes if we feed the body at regular intervals we send a signal to the body that it doesn't have to store calories and when we skip meals, we affect the metabolism negatively. "But this can be accomplished with three regular meals a day for many of us," she notes.

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."

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