Meal frequency and meal size, rather than the timing of meals, was the strongest determinant of weight gain over a 6-year period. Smaller, more frequent meals were associated with weight loss. People who ate sooner after they woke up and stopped eating sooner in the day had greater weight loss. Larger and medium-sized meals eaten more frequently were associated with weight gain.
SUMMARY EATING SMALL MEALS THROUGHOUT THE DAY
Meal frequency and meal size (i.e., small meals), rather than the timing of meals, was the strongest determinant of weight gain over a 6-year period.
Smaller, more frequent meals were associated with weight loss. People who ate sooner after they woke up and stopped eating sooner in the day had greater weight loss.
Larger and medium-sized meals eaten more frequently were associated with weight gain.
Intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating are trending diets. Intermittent fasting promotes weight loss, enhances youthful hormones, and betters skin health. Time-restricted eating, which limits food intake between 4 to 18 hours, is seen as a potential weight loss solution. (Di Francesco et al., 2018; Panda, 2016)
Recent studies found no significant weight or fat loss difference between time-restricted eating and a calorie-matched diet. (Liu et al., 2022; Lowe et al., 2020) However, time-restricted eating did show benefits like improved glucose control, reduced blood pressure, and better lipid profiles.
SMALL MEALS FOR WEIGHT LOSS
Most bodybuilders will consume six small meals a day to maximize protein synthesis, but this is another myth. The health benefits of eating small, frequent meals have been suggested to result in better digestion, stable blood sugar levels, and greater satiety throughout the day.
Eating multiples times a day has been suggested to increase metabolism, but there is no basis for this claim. You can read a previous article on Evidence Based Muscle on meal frequency and metabolism. Contrary to the notion that increased meal frequency is better for weight loss, some studies have shown that greater meal frequency is associated with greater abdominal fat and obesity. (Holmbäck et al., 2010; Ma et al., 2003)
FREQUENT MEALS VS LARGE MEALS FOR WEIGHT LOSS
A new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association examined time spent fasting (i.e., time from first to last meal) and weight gain over time among adults in a population-based clinical cohort. They also looked at meal frequency (i.e., eating smaller meals daily compared to medium and large-size meals) and weight gain.
Over a six-month period, 547 participants downloaded and used a mobile application to record the timing of meals and sleep for at least 1 day. These were free-living adults, so they had freedom over what they could eat over the day; all they had to do was track the food portion sizes with the app. The researchers tracked changes over 6 years.
By the end of the study, researchers determined that the time span between the first and last meal had no connection to weight loss over a 6-year period. Meal timing, or time-restricted eating, didn’t influence weight changes.
Eating small frequent meals contributed to weight loss. On the other hand, consuming medium and large-size meals more often led to weight gain. Specifically, a daily addition of one large meal caused an average annual weight gain of .69 kg (1.5 lbs.), a medium meal led to .97 kg (2.1 lbs.), and small meals resulted in a weight change of .30 kg (.66 lbs.).
The researchers found that meal frequency and meal size, rather than the timing of meals, was the strongest determinant of weight gain over a 6-year period. In the study, people who ate sooner after they woke up and stopped eating sooner in the day had greater weight loss.
A 1-hour increase in the time between the first and last meal at baseline results in a 0.005 kg average annual weight change. Two large-scale studies found that eating breakfast earlier and having dinner earlier in the day lead to greater weight loss. (Garaulet et al., 2013; Purslow et al., 2007)
The study’s flaw lies in trusting 24-hour diet apps for precise calorie tracking. Often, subjects misreport their dietary intake. Despite being observational, the study intriguingly indicates that eating smaller meals more frequently might enhance weight loss.
Di Francesco, A., Di Germanio, C., Bernier, M., & de Cabo, R. (2018). A time to fast. Science, 362(6416), 770-775. https://doi.org/doi:10.1126/science.aau2095
Garaulet, M., Gómez-Abellán, P., Alburquerque-Béjar, J. J., Lee, Y. C., Ordovás, J. M., & Scheer, F. A. J. L. (2013). Timing of food intake predicts weight loss effectiveness. International Journal of Obesity, 37(4), 604-611. https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2012.229
Holmbäck, I., Ericson, U., Gullberg, B., & Wirfält, E. (2010). A high eating frequency is associated with an overall healthy lifestyle in middle-aged men and women and reduced likelihood of general and central obesity in men. British Journal of Nutrition, 104(7), 1065-1073. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007114510001753
Liu, D., Huang, Y., Huang, C., Yang, S., Wei, X., Zhang, P., Guo, D., Lin, J., Xu, B., Li, C., He, H., He, J., Liu, S., Shi, L., Xue, Y., & Zhang, H. (2022). Calorie Restriction with or without Time-Restricted Eating in Weight Loss. New England Journal of Medicine, 386(16), 1495-1504. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMoa2114833
Lowe, D. A., Wu, N., Rohdin-Bibby, L., Moore, A. H., Kelly, N., Liu, Y. E., Philip, E., Vittinghoff, E., Heymsfield, S. B., Olgin, J. E., Shepherd, J. A., & Weiss, E. J. (2020). Effects of Time-Restricted Eating on Weight Loss and Other Metabolic Parameters in Women and Men With Overweight and Obesity: The TREAT Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, 180(11), 1491-1499. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.4153
Ma, Y., Bertone, E. R., Stanek, E. J., III, Reed, G. W., Hebert, J. R., Cohen, N. L., Merriam, P. A., & Ockene, I. S. (2003). Association between Eating Patterns and Obesity in a Free-living US Adult Population. American Journal of Epidemiology, 158(1), 85-92. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwg117
Panda, S. (2016). Circadian physiology of metabolism. Science, 354(6315), 1008-1015. https://doi.org/doi:10.1126/science.aah4967
Purslow, L. R., Sandhu, M. S., Forouhi, N., Young, E. H., Luben, R. N., Welch, A. A., Khaw, K.-T., Bingham, S. A., & Wareham, N. J. (2007). Energy Intake at Breakfast and Weight Change: Prospective Study of 6,764 Middle-aged Men and Women. American Journal of Epidemiology, 167(2), 188-192. https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwm309