A Chink in the Small, Frequent Meal Theory

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.


14 thoughts on “A Chink in the Small, Frequent Meal Theory

  1. Vindication, and by the Journal of Nutrition, no less! Congratulations on sticking by your guns all these years.

  2. The theory of eating often is to keep the metabolism going. You eat, and your metabolism reamins high for approx 3 hours, depending upon what you eat. Protein being the best for maintaining the metabolism.
    Eating is a metabolic event that raises your metabolic rate.
    That is also the theory for walking after a meal, to raise the metabolic rate. and the theory for eating after working out, to riase the metabolic rate while it is still high.

    Are you disputing these things?

    1. Alan, you do experience a transient rise in metabolism when you eat. It’s called the thermic effect of food. In terms of the number of calories you burn through this elevation, it depends on the number of calories you take in, not how frequently you take them in. In other words, whether I eat one 600 calorie meal every 4 hours or two 300 calorie meals every two hours, the total calories burned via the thermic effect of food will be roughly the same.

      Either way, every meal (or “metabolism-boosting event”) leads to a positive energy balance–more calories in than out. In order to burn 30 calories digesting your food, you have to take in 300 (round figures for the sake of illustration.) The only way that eating more frequently leads to increased calorie burn is if you are also eating more calories–but you will always be eating (and storing) far more calories than you’re burning through the metabolic bump.

      Think of it this way: If I earn more money, I’m going to pay more income tax. But even though my tax bill may be higher, my net income is still going up. Likewise, if I eat more food, I’m going to burn more calories via the thermic effect of food but my intake is still going up. And when you’re talking about calories, “money in the bank” equals stored fat.

  3. My understanding is that eating the frequesnt meals is to stabilize your motabolism.
    That while eating raises your metabolic rate, when you don’t eat, it gets lower.

    In fact, if you don’t eat often enough, your body can go into starvation mode, store calories as fat, instead of burning them, via the motabolism rate.

    I don’t beliee its a question of calories. I believe that the frequent meals is to make your body burn calories more effectively and raise your metabolic rate.

    Some skinny people eat more, and are skinny, some people eat less and are fat. Many say it has to do with metabolism

    Are you disputing all of the theory’s aqnd concepts that I have written in these two emails?

    I understand the point that eating more calories is going to cost you, whether its in more or less meals. I got that. I also got that people underestimate the numbers.

    But for those reasons I wouldn’t discount the underlying theory’s that I disucssed.

    1. Alan, it is true that if you don’t eat often enough, your body can go into starvation mode. However, it takes two or three days of fasting or severe caloric restriction to bring about any adjustment in your metabolism. Going 2, 6, or even 12 hours without eating will absolutely not cause your metabolism to slow down.

      So, while the concepts of the thermic effect of food and the so-called starvation mode are both valid, neither of them (when correctly understood and applied) support the conclusion that eating more frequently causes your metabolism to burn at a higher rate.

      In the long run, eating frequent meals will not cause your metabolism to burn any hotter than eating the same number of calories at fewer, less frequent meals. You don’t have to take my word for it. Researchers have designed studies specifically to test this theory. Here are links to some of them if you are inclined to read further.



  4. Just a quibble – Your post seems to imply that the “small meals frequently” advice has been dominant for a long time. As someone who’s been dieting for about 50 years and reads a lot of popular articles on nutrition and obesity*, I see conflicting advice all the time. Frequent small meals/3 squares and no snacks; lots of fruit/little fruit; lots of protein/go veggie!; pay attention to glycemic index/don’t bother with glycemic index – the list goes on. I’m not even considering fad diets. The only constants are what I learned in a nutrition class a long time ago: don’t eat more calories than you burn; eat a variety of foods; go easy on fat and sugar.

    *if I read enough, maybe I’ll lose weight ; )

  5. Hi, liked the article, just a small quibble. The word “chink” is quite offensive to many people. Although you use it inoffensively and without poor intention, I just want to let you know that to some people, it’s as offensive as the N word.

    1. “Chink” is a perfectly valid word with a long history prior to its being used in any kind offensive context. Also, its offensive usage has NOTHING to do with the meaning of the word itself, just its sound.

      The N word is completely different in both these regards.

      Not sure if it makes sense to start retiring words from the English language just because some people start using them idiotically.

  6. So as I read the title to this article I still question exactly what the author is trying to argue. “A chink in the SMALL, FREQUENT meal theory”…and I read the author’s TAKE on meal frequency and she is basically stating that the SMALL FREQUENT meal theory is correct, YET her attempt in writing this article was to dispute such notion by using the Journal of Nutrition studies. The author writes “And that means that the more often you eat, the smaller your meals need to be.”

    Let’s break this statement down… the MORE OFTEN you eat, the SMALLER your meals NEED to be…hmmm sounds a lot like the SMALL FREQUENT meal theory to me. The Small Frequent Theory is basically this, if your daily calorie intake is 1800-2500 based on your BMI, it would be WISE to eat 6 SMALLER meals that would equate to the daily calorie intake needed. Instead of eating 3 LARGER meals which we all know will not be properly absorbed by the body and makes most of us feel tired and lethargic afterwards. Also has anyone noticed that when we eat 3 LARGER meals a day in between meals we tend to snack on chocolate, chips, apples, etc.? This is because our bodies are asking for some supplemental food to keep us going because the LARGE meal we ate 3-5 hours ago did not hold us up and most of the calories were passed through our digestive system unused/unburned.

    Now the author also suggests that we keep a calorie count, which has also been proven to be insanely hard to do and unrealistic since most of us have work and lives to live. But let us go with it. If we are to count every calorie we must take then we should plan ahead, decide exactly how much our body needs based on our BMI then read how many calories each meal and food had (including the delicious apples, crackers, and any other item we introduce to our palate). Then we must know ourselves and our eating patterns, if we find ourselves eating between 6am breakfast and the 11am lunch then that means we need to take the breakfast and lunch and break it down into three meals.

    For example if in the past you use to eat a 3 egg omelet with two pieces of sausage and a biscuit, a glass of O.J. and coffee, and for lunch it was a 6 inch Club subway sandwich with chips, 1 cookie, and a 20 oz. coke, and in between these two meals you eat a snickers and a soda, this needs to change. A more sensible approach would be a two egg omelet with one piece of sausage (hold the other piece and the biscuit) an 8 oz. glass of OJ and an 8 oz. of coffee. Then 2 1/2 hours later as a snack to hold you off until lunch, you will eat an apple with 4 Ritz crackers and water. Finally, lunch comes in at 11am and you will eat 4 inches or perhaps the 6 inch sub but hold the chips, substitute another apple or fruit, no cookie, and 20 oz. tea or water. Repeat this same idea between the lunch and dinner times and add a smaller snack.

    SMALL FREQUENT MEALS – hmmm sound exactly to what the author is trying to debunk doesn’t it? The hardest task out of all of this is to really take the time to research the calories in each food item and then apply it to your daily intake while keeping tabs of the calorie intake throughout the day. Once you get a hang of this, the rest is much easier. ALSO the other key is EXERCISE…the author is right on this aspect…if you DON’T exercise all of this will just sit on your abdominals, butt, arms, and around your major organs. I’ve tried all this and other things, believe it when I say that eating smaller frequent meals helps curve the hunger pain you get between lunch and dinner.

  7. The research says SMALL frequent meals throughout the day – meaning LOW in calorie — lead to weight loss. Not just frequent.

    Frequent meals could be any amount of calories.

    Eating SMALL SNACKS<<<< not meals throughout the day helps me not BINGE on any one "feeding" during the day. I've lost over 2oo pounds eating SMALL FREQUENT snacks (and reasonable healthy meals) throughout the day.

    So much for your own "theory".

  8. Carlos (above) — anyone eating crap like that would gain weight / if the felt well enough to actually care…

    Try –
    Breakfast – oatmeal with almonds. grapes. Water.
    Snack – an orange
    Lunch – chicken salad, with avocado and cottage cheese
    Snack – peanutbutter (1 tablespoon) on an apple
    Dinner – chicken, vegetables and whole grain roll. Water.
    Snack – air popped popcorn, carrots sprinkled with parmesan.

    Done. Healthy – not gaining. This plus exercise. Different menu every day. Never get bored.

  9. If there is agreement that a portion of the people in the studies underreported the amount of calories they consumed during the day and reported a BMI of X, wouldn’t that mean that they ate more than they reported but still had a BMI of X? Wouldn’t we expect their BMI to be greater than X ( or a positive result) if they ate more calories than they reported? So if their BMI was still low (or a negative result) and they reported unusually low daily caloric intake, wouldn’t that mean they were successfully following the “small frequent meals” plan? How does underreporting your intake improve your results?

    1. Jaleel, the idea is here is that those who under-reported the amount they consume might also under-report the frequency of eating events, creating a false association between fewer meals and higher BMI.

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