THE BLOG
06/25/2014 11:28 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

Why Frequent Small Meals Can Stall Fast, Lasting Fat Loss

Heidi Coppock-Beard via Getty Images

A study recently published in the journal Hepatology increased caloric intake of 36 lean, healthy men a whopping 40 percent for six weeks.

These men received those increased calories through meal size or meal frequency. In other words, some men ate bigger meals, and others got those excess calories through smaller meals and snacking.

When you increase calories, especially as the high-fat/high-sugar or high-sugar foods these participants ate, you'll gain weight. Indeed, both groups did.

Here's where it gets interesting. Independent of caloric content and body weight gain, meal frequency increased liver and abdominal fat; increasing meal size did not. "[S]nacking, a common feature in the Western diet, independently contributes to hepatic steatosis [fatty liver] and obesity," researchers concluded.

Meal frequency becomes a polarizing topic within fitness and nutrition camps. Advocates argue snacks or "mini meals" throughout the day can curb appetite, stabilize blood sugar, and help you eat less during meals. One popular fat-loss program promises you "will constantly be eating, four meals or meal replacements (soups, smoothies, shakes) and three snacks a day, over a six-week program."

Yet studies show no advantage to frequent grazing. One eight-week study in The British Journal of Nutrition divided 16 obese men and women into two camps. Both received the same number of calories daily. One group ate those calories as three meals and three snacks. The other ate them as three meals but no snacks.

Being a reduced-calorie diet, both groups lost weight. However, researchers found no fat loss advantage to eating more often.

Studies support what I've found over my nearly three decades as a celebrity nutrition and fitness expert: Frequently grazing permits you to eat more than you need and sabotages fast, lasting fat loss.

One in the journal Obesity (Silver Spring) found increasing meal frequency from three to six each day could increase hunger and your desire to eat.

That's because eating raises your insulin levels. "Insulin actually prevents fat burning," says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., in his book Living Low Carb. "By lowering insulin, you open the doors of the fat cells and allow the body to release fat."

Logically, snacking and mini meals keep insulin levels jacked up and your fat-burning doors locked. Plus, let's face it. You're probably not eating wild salmon and sautéed spinach as a snack or mini meal. Instead, you'll reach for convenient, processed foods usually filled with sugar and other empty-nutrient carbohydrates.

Taking a food break between meals gives your body a well-deserved break to reach into those fat stores and burn it for fuel. Mini-meals and snacking don't provide that opportunity.

Many smaller-meal plans also permit nightly snacking, further potentially stalling fat loss. One study in the American Journal of Physiology: Regulatory, Integrative, and Comparative Physiology found young women who snack at nighttime prevent fat breakdown and increase their obesity risks. One reason: butter pecan, not buttered Brussels sprouts, more often constitutes 11 p.m. snacking.

Nix the mini meal mentality and focus on substantive, healthy meals. Ideally, you'll space these meals 4-6 hours apart, and you'll stop eating about three hours before bed. That allows your body plenty of time throughout the day and while you're sleeping to reach into your fat stores.

That might sound impossible if you're currently constantly grazing. I suggest gradually working towards four hours between meals and then see if you can go longer. I'm not entirely anti-snacking, but your goal should be to eat enough at every meal so snacking becomes occasional, not a habit.

To do this, you'll focus on optimal protein, healthy fats, and fiber at every meal so you stabilize blood sugar and create hormonal harmony to reduce hunger and cravings.

One study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a high-protein breakfast curbs your hunger hormone ghrelin, reduces gastric emptying, and increases cholecystokinin (CCK) that tells your brain you're full.

Likewise, healthy fats like avocado and olive oil increase satiety. Fiber-rich foods such as legumes, quinoa, and leafy greens control glucose levels, reducing blood sugar fluctuations that lead to cravings and hunger.

Especially if you've hit a plateau or otherwise can't ditch those last stubborn pounds, try my meal-frequency challenge and see if three substantial, well-designed meals daily help reach your fat-loss goals.

I realize this remains a controversial topic, and I want to hear your story below. Have you found more frequent meals or three bigger meals work better for you?

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Additional References

Jonny Bowden, Living Low Carb (New York: Sterling, 2010), 37.