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The Truth About 6 Meals a Day for Weight Loss

Can eating more frequently help you lose weight?
WebMD Expert Column

Three squares a day -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- is a way of life for many of us. But some diet experts believe more frequent meals could be better. Eating six small meals a day, they say, helps regulate blood sugar, control cravings and keep hunger at bay.

As long as you choose the right foods and watch portion sizes, "grazing" throughout the day can help you lose weight while keeping you energized.  But it's not for everyone -- especially if you have trouble controlling the amount you eat or if you don’t have time to plan and prepare and healthy snacks and meals.

The Truth About 6 Meals a Day

Hunger is a dieter’s worst enemy. That gnawing feeling usually occurs between meals, when blood sugar levels drop.  In theory, if you divide your daily calorie allotment into several small meals throughout the day, hunger won’t be an issue.

Jorge Cruise’s The 3 Hour Diet  is one diet book that claims frequent small meals can rev up your metabolism and help you burn calories. But while eating more frequently seems to help some people control hunger, the scientific evidence indicates that there's nothing magical about it. Ultimately, what matters most is reducing your total calories -- regardless of the number of meals or snacks.

A review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded there was no real weight loss advantage to eating six meals a day.  Another study, in the British Journal of Nutrition, found no weight loss difference between dieters who ate their calories in three meals daily or six meals a day.

What Should You Eat?

Eating more frequently could actually mean less nutrition and more calories if you don’t carefully plan out your snacks and meals. 

Calorie requirements are determined by age, sex, physical activity levels, and weight loss goals.  Most adults need about 1,500-2,200 calories for weight loss, unless they're very active. (See WebMD's Food and Fitness Planner to calculate your own calorie requirements.)

For maximum satisfaction, each mini-meal or snack should include lean- or low-fat protein, fiber, and a little healthy fat. For good nutrition, try to include at least one fruit or veggie in each mini-meal.

Good protein sources include lean meat, seafood, low-fat dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk), eggs, nuts, beans, and soy.  Fiber-rich foods include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans. Healthy fats come from vegetable oils, avocados, nuts, and fatty fish. 

Here are some healthy mini-meals that are easy to prepare:

  • An apple with a piece of cheese and light popcorn
  • Egg, slice of whole-wheat toast, and half a grapefruit
  • Grilled chicken sandwich with veggies
  • Whole-grain roll with peanut butter and banana
  • Hummus, whole-grain crackers, and baby carrots
  • Smoothie made with yogurt, fruit, and juice
  • Waldorf salad and half a turkey sandwich

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