Many diets and dietitians promote such mini meals, but they may not be any better than three square meals a day when it comes to feeling full and satisfied, according to a new study in Obesity.
“You hear a lot in the lay press claiming that mini meals were better, but there was no scientific evidence to support these claims,” says study researcher Heather J. Leidy, PhD, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Leidy was getting her PhD at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., when the study was conducted. “We are not saying three meals a day is the best, but mini meals are not any more beneficial at controlling appetite,” she says.
3 Meals vs. 6
Twenty-seven overweight or obese men were placed on a reduced-calorie diet in which either 25% or 14% of the calories came from lean protein for 12 weeks. Men were asked to eat the same diet as three meals or six meals a day for three days starting at week seven, and then they switched to the other eating pattern for three more days.
Men recorded their feelings of hunger or satiety every hour that they were awake during the three- or six-meal-a-day portion of the study using an electronic device.
Those men who ate six mini meals a day showed no improvement in appetite control or perceived fullness compared to those who ate three meals a day.
The findings are likely applicable to overweight or obese women, Leidy says. Some people such as athletes, recreational runners, and people with diabetes or prediabetes, however, may benefit from eating smaller meals more frequently throughout the day, she says.
“But eating more frequently is not the best diet strategy to combat obesity,” she says.
No One-Size-Fits All Strategy
This is a tricky one, says Dana Greene, MS, RD, a nutritionist in Brookline, Mass. “Some people enjoy eating small meals throughout the day, and others don't have the time and/or don't care to eat so frequently,” she says.
The three meals in this study were calorie controlled, which is what helps weight loss, Greene says.
“It was thought that eating small meals more frequently helps stabilize blood sugar and better controls appetite, but if those frequent meals aren't appropriately portioned, this won't work,” she says. “I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all answer.”
Tanya Zuckerbrot, RD, author of The F-Factor Diet and a New York City-based nutritionist, says that "a diet consisting of six meals throughout the day can be unrealistic to maintain considering people’s hectic lifestyles.”
In an email, she says that “when you eat a more substantial meal, you get increased sensory stimulation because you have more food going through your mouth and you’re eating for a longer period of time, both of which help to promote feelings of satisfaction.”
Zuckerbrot promotes a combination of lean protein and fiber at every meal. “Meals consisting of a combination of fiber and protein will help keep you feeling full longer because they take the longest time to digest,” she says. “They also keep blood sugar levels stabilized and thus prevent drastic spikes and crashes in sugar levels that can ultimately lead to increased hunger, bingeing, and/or making poor choices at mealtimes.”
The National Pork Board and the American Egg Board funded the new study. Eggs and lean pork were among the main sources of protein in the diets.