Many people believe that eating several smaller meals a day aids in weight loss, but a new study suggests otherwise.
It turns out that when trying to lose weight, eating five small meals a day won’t make you any skinnier, but what matters most is being “calorie aware”.
The study, from Britain’s University of Warwick, analysed 24 women of varying weights and compared the amount of calories burnt by those who ate two meals a day with those who ate five meals and found no measurable difference.
“The size and frequency of the meal doesn’t affect the calories we burn a day,” said Dr Milan Kumer, the lead researcher for the study.
Although size and frequency of a meal doesn’t matter, when trying to decide whether it’s better to have several small meals a day or go back to eating three, says dietician Dr Joanna McMillan she’s always been a three-meals-a-day person.
The trouble with eating so often is that the thought of food is constantly on your brain, which is one of the things Dr McMillan tries to get people to think less about.
“If you’re thinking about eating food every two to three hours then you’re constantly going ‘what am I going to eat next? What am I going to have next? What time is it? Am I ready to eat again?’”
A lot of people need to be directing their attention away from food in order to control their weight, she says.
The idea behind eating several smaller meals came from a series of studies that compared eating one big meal at the end of the day to eating six small meals spaced throughout the day, both containing the same amount of calories, explains Dr McMillan.
They found that you burned more kilojoules metabolising and digesting the six small meals than you did digesting one big one, making eating more portions the favourable option when dieting.
That said, we are so accustomed in our culture to three meals a day.
“What I find is when people are trying to eat five or six meals a day they still eat the same for breakfast, lunch and dinner but they’re adding food in between and they end up eating more food,” says the dietician.
What does make sense about eating more meals is that you are less likely to be hungry, but at the same time people are also less likely to be satisfied.
“I talk to my clients about their hunger rating on a scale from one to 10, one being ‘I’m ravenous hungry’ and 10 being ‘I’m Christmas-lunch stuffed.’”
When eating smaller meals constantly you’re never “ravenous” but you’re never “Christmas-lunch stuffed” either.
Meaning you’re more likely to go in search of something else. “It’s sort of like that itch that you can’t scratch,” says Dr McMillan.
Like everything, there is also a downside to counting calories. “It can lead to obsession and disordered eating.”
But also if you are selecting your foods based on calories alone then you aren’t taking into account their nutritional content.
“Someone might say ‘well, I’m not eating nuts because they have a high kilojoule count’ and they’ll choose a low fat, low kilojoule rice cracker instead. What they’ve done is chosen a processed food over a natural food that has no health benefits.”
Instead of counting calories, Dr McMillan prefers the idea of “calorie awareness”. This means being aware of how many calories you’re trying to have and knowing roughly how many goes into each portion.
“When I walk into McDonald’s and look at the burgers I understand what eating one means without counting the kilojoules of everything that goes into my mouth,” says Dr McMillan.
“I’m a dietician and I couldn’t tell you how many kilojoules are in the meal that I cooked for dinner last night,” she says.
The key to weight loss is being calorie aware, not how many meals you eat each day.
It’s about knowing your body and trying to understand your hunger and what’s driving you to seek food.
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