6 Meals a Day for Weight Loss

From the WebMD Archives

You’ve probably heard the advice that eating small meals throughout the day is how you win the battle of the bulge. The claim is that frequent snacking, as long as it’s healthy, keeps your metabolism humming, staves off hunger, and controls blood sugar.

The end result: You eat less. Except it may not work that way.

A study from the University of Ottawa found that on a low-calorie diet, there was no weight loss advantage to splitting calories among six meals rather than three.

A second study found that switching from three daily meals to six did not boost calorie-burning or fat loss. In fact, the researchers concluded, eating six meals a day actually made people want to eat more.

And a research review reached no conclusions about whether meal frequency helps or hurts with weight loss.

So if the number of meals you eat doesn’t make a difference with weight loss, what does?

Calories, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, a wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic. Your best bet is to cut your daily calories, regardless of how often you nosh. If you want to eat more often, you can, as long as you keep your calories in check.

The Upside of More Than 3 Meals a Day

While eating many meals may not rev up your metabolism or make you burn fat, experts say it could help you in other ways.

The longer you wait between meals, the hungrier you get, and then you’re more likely to overeat.

“After about 3 hours without food, blood sugar begins to fall. And after 4 hours, your body has already digested whatever you sent down earlier,” says Cleveland dietitian Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD. “Once you’ve crossed the 5-hour mark, your blood sugar begins to plummet, and you grab whatever you can to refuel.”

That’s why breakfast is so important. After 7-8 hours of sleep without food, you need energy to get moving, Jamieson-Petonic says.

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People who regularly eat breakfast tend to weigh less than those who skip their morning meal. They also get more nutrients like vitamins D, B12, and A. They may even be more likely to resist food cravings and make better food choices, especially when protein is part of the meal.

If you start off your day with breakfast, and then continue eating every 3 to 4 hours, you’ll provide your body and brain with a steady stream of nutrients so you don’t go overboard at mealtime.

How to Snack the Right Way

If you’re going to go the mini-meals route, your biggest danger is eating too much.

“As long as you choose good foods and keep portion sizes in check, frequent grazing can help you lose weight and keep cravings at bay,” Jamieson-Petonic says. The simplest strategy is mixing portion control with protein and fiber to fill you up. Plan nutrient-dense snacks like these:

  • Fresh fruit with low-fat cheese
  • Raw veggies with 1/4 cup hummus or tzatziki sauce for dipping
  • Whole-grain crackers with 1 ounce of low-fat cheese or one tablespoon of nut butter
  • 1/4 cup trail mix with nuts, dried fruits, and whole-grain cereal
  • 1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt with fresh berries

Whether you’re grazing throughout the day or having the standard three meals, getting the most nutrient bang for your calorie buck is key. So avoid “junk” foods that are easy to overeat (processed foods, refined carbs, sugary drinks).

Instead, fuel up on protein and high-fiber carbohydrates. Both fill you up without weighing you down, Kirkpatrick says.

If you have trouble controlling portion sizes, or you don’t have time to prep healthy snacks, you may be better off with the old three-meal-a-day plan.

What Matters More

The number of meals you eat doesn’t matter as much as what you eat, Kirkpatrick says.

Fill your plate with plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean sources of protein.

Quality, calories, and portion sizes ultimately make the difference.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on June 28, 2014

Sources

SOURCES:

Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, LD, MEd, CSSD, director of wellness coaching, Cleveland Clinic.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, wellness manager, Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.

Cameron, J. British Journal of Nutrition, April 2010.

Ohkawara, K. Obesity, February 2013.

Kulovitz, M. Nutrition, April 2014.

The National Weight Control Registry.

Leidy, H. Obesity, October 2011.

News release, Institute of Food Technologists.

Arciero, P. Obesity, July 2013.

Leidy, H. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 2013.

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