For many years, we’ve been told that eating small, frequent meals is a good strategy for weight loss. In part, this was based on a body of research showing an inverse relationship between meal frequency and BMI. In other words, studies found that people who reported eating more times per day were less likely to be overweight.
I’ve always been confused by this. In my observation, people who eat more frequently usually end up eating more calories overall–and eating more calories generally leads to higher body weight.
In a new paper in the Journal of Nutrition, Megan McCrory and colleagues explain why the research data don’t seem to line up with reality: the research data were wrong.
The Problem with Self-Reported Intake
All of the studies that found the inverse relationship between meal frequency and body weight used self-reported intake. Now, in dietary research circles, it’s well-known that people tend to under-report how much they eat. However, McCrory demonstrates that that the more people eat, the greater the discrepancy between the reality and the reporting.
McCrory and her colleagues reanalyzed the data for about 6500 subjects, looking for cases where an individual’s reported calorie intake was “implausible,” given what we know about energy requirements and allowing for error and biological variation. For example, if I’m a weight-stable, 150-pound woman, a reported calorie intake of anywhere from 1500 to 2800 a day could be considered “plausible” but a caloric intake of 800 calories a day could not.
McCrory and team then recrunched the data without the implausible reports. And guess what?
“The relationship between eating frequency and BMI moved from nonsignificant and inverse to significant and positive.”
In other words, the more times per day people ate, the more likely they were to be overweight. Exactly the opposite of the (completely illogical) conclusion that has fueled 40 years of diet advice.
My Advice on Meal Frequency
When it comes to weight management, it really doesn’t matter how often you eat but how much you eat. First, decide how many calories you can afford, based on your current weight, activity level, and your goal. Then, divide your calorie allowance up into as many meals as you like–whatever eating pattern best supports your appetite control, schedule, and preferences. But whether you’re eating two meals a day or twenty, you have to stay within your calorie budget. And that means that the more often you eat, the smaller your meals need to be.
Simply eating more frequently without paying attention to quantity, however, does not appear to regulate appetite and calorie intake and promote lower body weight–quite the opposite.