For decades—at least since the days when I was still a personal trainer in the early 1990’s—we’ve been hearing (and teaching) the gospel of six “mini-meals” a day. The theory is that small frequent meals keep you from getting too hungry, keep your blood sugar even, and prevent insulin- the fat-storing hormone- from skyrocketing. Sounds like an excellent weight management strategy, right?
But is it really true?
A new study(1) says “no”, confirming what I’ve been saying for quite a while.
In terms of reducing appetite or creating a sense of “fullness”, the study showed clearly that six mini-meals a day had no advantage over three squares a day.
In this study, published in the journal Obesity, 27 overweight or obese men were put on the same reduced calorie diet, but half were told to consume their daily calories as three meals, while the other half were told to break it up into six. (There was another difference, but I’ll get to that in a second.)
The men were asked to record their feelings of hunger and/or “fullness” every waking hour, using a special electronic device.
No difference. Daily hunger, late-night desire to eat and preoccupation with thoughts of food were not different between the groups.
But here’s where it gets really interesting. Remember that “second difference” in the diets? To make it interesting, the researchers varied the diets of both conditions by having half the men in each condition eat 25% of their calories as protein (the high-protein condition) while the other half of the men in each condition consumed 14% of their calories as protein (the low-protein condition).
Because the researchers essentially manipulated two conditions—frequency (6 meals vs 3) and protein (high vs low) we have a 2x2 matrix:
THREE MEALS PER DAY
SIX MEALS PER DAY
Overall, the men eating the high-protein diet felt more satisfied and less hungry than those eating the low-protein diet. (Remember, this was a low-calorie diet to begin with, so it’s particularly noteworthy that the high-protein guys didn’t experience any particular hunger or reduction in fullness, showing that higher-protein diets are definitely more filling and less likely to lead to hunger and overeating.)
“Collectively, these data support the consumption of high protein intake, but not greater eating frequency, for improved appetite control and satiety …(during) calorie-restricted weight loss”, wrote the authors.
Of course, no one is saying that five or six mini-meals is wrong; just that it’s not the only way to go and doesn’t appear to have any inherent advantage over the “grazing” method of eating every two or three hours.
What does seem to make a big difference- and not just in this study- is higher levels of protein in the diet. Tons of studies have shown that higher protein diets- even when calories are kept the same as in this study- lead to greater feelings of fullness, less cravings, and even a boost in metabolism.