Ask Will: Should We Eat 5 Times Per Day?

Dear Will,

Can you advise if eating five times throughout the day is better than eating three meals and no snacks?  

… I’m wondering if I should eat three balanced meals instead.


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Dear Catherine, 
Thank you so much for this question … and your intuition is spot on! 

“Eat every three hours.” Isn’t that amazing advice? At some point, there were people in a room somewhere who said, “Hey, you know what? We have a colossal weight problem in this country with people who vastly overeat all the all the all the time. I have an idea, let’s tell them to eat MORE often!” 

The advice to trade in our traditional 3 meal per day pattern for an eat every 3 hours pattern throws away the habits we practiced when we were much thinner (1958, obesity rate = 11%). Between then and now, we lost our way, distracted by the new theories that pop out of the clown car each January. 

The new ideas can only distract us if they convince us that there’s actually something real there (the mini meals idea is a perfect case-in-point). However, although there’s a kernel of truth in the center of this little dietary sugar pill, that’s about all because the evidence to support it is just not there. 

Who is surprised by this, really? 

Here is the rationale behind the multiple mini meal mistake: 
1. The act of eating revs your body’s metabolism due to something called “the thermic effect of food”, so you’re burning more calories and therefore losing more weight. 
2. If you don’t eat between meals, your body will go into a “starvation mode”, hold onto all the fat it does have on board, and subvert your attempts to one day find yourself in smaller pants. 

Yes, our aging metabolism may be turning into a slug over time, sliding into a complacent stupor day by sedentary day, but not snacking between meals is not what is driving it into the ground. Your metabolism may have 99 problems, but that ain’t one. 

Here’s the kernel of truth 
The thermic effect of food is a real thing, and has been measured. But when you eat, the number of calories burned by consuming that food amounts to about 5 – 15 percent of the total calories of the meal. The idea is that if you eat more frequently, you will keep up that calorie burn! 

This sounds really great until you think about it in common sense terms. It’s like you saying, “There’s a 10% sale on at Macy’s! I’m going to buy more bed sheets and back to school supplies more often so I can save more money!” Said in this way, the idea that you’re going to save calories by eating more often is totally nonsensical. “Spending to save” is still spending, just like adding calories to burn calories is still adding on the calories. 

Even worse for this latest new idea, smaller mini meals have a smaller effect on boosting metabolism as compared to a larger normal meal. And eating multiple mini meals also did not improve your body’s ability to rev up your metabolism over time. 

What about the dreaded starvation mode? 

This is behind door number two – the idea that if you don’t eat every three hours you will slip into this mode where your body thinks you are starving and holds on to all the fat you’re trying to lose. But to achieve such a sad metabolic state of affairs, you would have to consume about 500 calories per day (that’s all) for about 10 days straight in order to make this happen. 

The idea that you can’t make it all the way from breakfast to lunch without your metabolism going full DEFCON1 on you a) makes no sense, and b) has exactly zero research supporting it. 

Not only does the multiple mini meal pattern not prevent the mythical starvation mode beast, but compared head-to-head with the normal 3 squares per day meal pattern, the multiple mini meal pattern does not increase basal metabolism. 


By the way, eating those additional mini meals through the day turns out to be worse than fewer larger meals for lipid profiles in obese individuals and for blood sugar in Type 2 diabetics. 


The bottom line for your bottom lines
What about the effect of this eating pattern on weight loss? There are definitely cases in which an individual lost weight doing this or some other diet du jour, but controlled studies indicate that it doesn’t help most people control weight most of the time. 

Again, yes, it’s possible for one person to lose weight on the Krispy Kreme diet, the eat every 3 hours diet, or any other. However, if you had a ton of people do this diet, and you looked to see whether its weight loss effect was statistically significant (not a fluke), the answer would be … nope. 

So Catherine, your sense of things is exactly correct. People certainly can give this mini meal miracle a shot, and hope that they’re the exception to the rule and it actually works for them. 

Alternatively, we can find an eating pattern that we know is associated with weight control. When we were thinner than we are today, no one ate every three hours with mini meals. At that time (in the main, in general, as a rule … you get my point), we ate 3 meals a day, portions weren’t gargantuan, and it was real food. 

It’s my recommendation that we do that! Hope this helps.

Talk to you soon,

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