What does it really mean to eat small and frequent meals?
One of the oldest pieces of advice for people trying to lose weight is to “eat small frequent meals”. Eating frequency is a crucial component of most weight loss diets. Many modern dietary plans forego the traditional practice of eating three large meals. Instead, weight watchers take small meals with shorter gaps in between. This is compatible with the meal frequency of most Americans. Studies show that, on average, a regular adult has five eating occasions daily.
But how accurate is that advice? And what does “small” really mean?
Small, frequent meals (SFMs) are a dietary practice characterized by multiple small eating episodes, about 6-10 meals, throughout the day. This is contrary to the breakfast-lunch-dinner eating regimen that has been generally accepted for social and practical convenience.
Several clinical nutrition guidelines recommend SFMs for patients who are experiencing gastrointestinal-related symptoms resulting from health conditions such as:
- Autoimmune diseases
- Chronic pancreatitis
Some pregnant and elderly patients are also advised to take SFM.
Small, Frequent Meals for Weight Management
Ideally, small, frequent meals are keys to healthy weight loss because of the following:
- Increased metabolism
- Reduced hunger and food cravings
- Improved glucose and insulin control
- Reduced fat storage
Some doctors and nutritionists recommend short and long-term SFMs to boost energy, improve cognitive performance, promote fluid and nutrient intake, and reduce GI symptoms, including vomiting, bloating, and premature satiety.
On the other hand, for an individual who is overweight or obese, eating too many times a day with energy-dense and large portion-sized food may yield opposite results, such as increased hunger and further weight gain.
It is therefore important to note that while overeating is detrimental to overall health, infrequent meal intake has also been associated with obesity, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, and ischemic heart disease. This often happens to people who restrict their food intake for a while, then binge eats once they lose their motivation.
When SFM is done incorrectly or abused, it may lead to:
- unwarranted weight gain
- poor nutrition
- sleep disturbances
- disordered eating, which may worsen the underlying disease or symptoms.
As a general rule for relatively healthy individuals, I often say, “listen to your body.” I am also an advocate of occasional fasting, which helps the body focus on healing itself and resets it for optimal function. Read more about intermittent fasting here.
For individuals who have been medically advised to follow SFM, it is important to follow recommended guidelines that may include the following:
SFM can just be another version of binge eating without guidelines for meal size. If you take 4-6 small meals daily, each one should only be between 200-300 calories. That is equivalent to:
- One small apple and a spoonful of peanut butter
- Ten carrot sticks with 2 tbsp of healthy dips such as hummus or guacamole
- A quarter cup of nuts
- Two large hard-boiled eggs
For positive energy balance and to avoid weight gain, there should be a set period for SFM, depending on your condition and your doctor’s advice. It can be less than three months for those recovering from surgery or malnutrition, while it can be longer for people with chronic conditions. It should also be planned and intentional, contrary to snacking or mindlessly eating whenever, wherever. Starving oneself when losing weight without professional intervention or scientific basis is detrimental to health. Studies show that skipping meals may reduce fat oxidation and impair appetite control.
Of course, aside from watching the meal size and frequency, the kinds of food you eat matter most. This is what sets apart ahealthy SFM from regular snacking or grazing. On our Gallbladder Diet page, you can find our grocery list and some meal ideas that are sure not to aggravate GI symptoms or cause allergy and inflammation.
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Dashti, H. S., & Mogensen, K. M. (2017). Recommending small, frequent meals in the clinical care of adults: a review of the evidence and important considerations. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 32(3), 365-377.
Leidy, H. J., & Campbell, W. W. (2011). The effect of eating frequency on appetite control and food intake: brief synopsis of controlled feeding studies. The Journal of nutrition, 141(1), 154-157.
Leech, R. M., Worsley, A., Timperio, A., & McNaughton, S. A. (2015). Understanding meal patterns: definitions, methodology and impact on nutrient intake and diet quality. Nutrition research reviews, 28(1), 1-21.
McCrory, M. A., & Campbell, W. W. (2011). Effects of eating frequency, snacking, and breakfast skipping on energy regulation: symposium overview. The Journal of nutrition, 141(1), 144-147.