A common weight loss tip that we have all come across is: eat smaller meals more frequently.
I’ve certainly heard it from my senior health professionals, Instagram influencers and countless of weight loss articles reiterate this concept. I think I might’ve used it in one of my practice consultations with a pretend patient in my earlier years of medical school.
But I’ve never actually looked at the science behind it until now. How does it work? Wait… does it even work? Let’s find out.
We’re Eating Bigger and Eating More
Before we jump into the details, let’s look at the context of the situation.
Since the 1970s, our portion sizes have increased by 10%. When people are offered larger portions of food, their caloric intake increases and ultimately, so does their weight. This portion-size effect has undoubtedly contributed to the increasing prevalence of obesity around the world. So it is fair to focus on the need for people to consume smaller portions to lose weight.
In the same timeframe, the number of meals we consume per day has increased by 22%. The average American adult reports eating 5 times per day with an average of 3 waking hours between each eating episode. If our frequent eating also plays a role in caloric intake and weight gain, then why are we being asked to eat more frequently to lose weight?
Why We Secretly Love This Idea
Several published studies have suggested that increasing meal frequency may lead to body weight reduction. Eating smaller but more frequent meals can result in greater fullness, appetite reduction and increased metabolism.
When we look at this conclusion through our subjective human eyes, we can see why this idea gained so much traction and fanfare. Eating has become so ingrained in our lives. We don’t eat to survive anymore, we now eat to socialise, to have fun and to curb our emotions.
So the idea of eating more frequently (albeit smaller meals) to lose weight? Sign me up please!
But There’s a Problem
These epidemiological studies relied on individuals self-reporting their eating patterns. This brings in a research concept known as underreporting bias where participants can omit, reduce or exaggerate their answers. Studies have found there is substantial underreporting of dietary intake by overweight individuals. This is definitely not to say these participants were deceiving the researchers intentionally – they were often surprised and distressed when told of their underreporting. Snacking is so common form these days we don’t even think twice about it.
We now can confirm this through randomised controlled-feeding intervention trials. These studies had participants eat in a controlled and observed environment and the findings did not support the former.
Furthermore, there are confounding factors to think about. Participants who ate less meals and so supposedly had a larger bodyweight, actually could’ve eaten unhealthier foods and exercised less.
Unless We All Have Pocket Scales
There is an increasing consensus that there is no strong, quality evidence to suggest that eating smaller meals more frequently is an effective weight loss strategy.
The only time when we can increase our meal frequency without causing weight gain is in a highly controlled setting. Unless we all plan our meals to meticulous detail, carry a scale with us everywhere we go and are immune to today’s obesogenic environment, this is most likely going to be in an experimental setting.
Even though we are told to eat smaller meals, not many meals will actually be smaller. Promoting the idea of eating more frequently may actually have adverse effects to one’s weight and overall, health.
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