It is well known that in recent years, restaurant portion sizes have steadily increased, and many single meals at fast food outlets and restaurants pack in enough calories for an entire day. Overall in the U.S., we are surrounded by calorie dense food all the time. Today, we eat more and more often than we did 20 or 30 years ago. We eat constantly. Calorie-dense, nutrient-poor snacks are everywhere. And many of our beverages contain enough calories to be meals in themselves.
However, “eat smaller, more frequent meals” is common weight loss advice – supposedly, if we eat more often to “keep blood sugar stable,” will avoid overeating. But does this really work? Is it sound advice for reducing caloric intake overall? The research says no – eating more frequently actually appears to promote weight gain.
Between 1977 and 2006:
Overweight and obesity rates in the U.S. skyrocketed from 48.5% to 70.1%.1
The average number of eating occasions (meals + snacks) increased from 3.5/day to 5.0/day.2
The average number of calories consumed each day rose from 1803 to 2374, an increase of 571 calories per day. Calorie intake in the U.S. has been increasing by an average of 28 calories per day per year since 1977.3
In a recent study, researchers examined three potential drivers of increased calorie intake: portion size, number of eating occasions, and calorie density of meals. Although portion sizes were responsible for much of the caloric increase up to 1991, by far, the greater number of eating occasions was the strongest driver of increased calorie intake, accounting for 22 of the 28 calories/day/year increase the researchers observed since 1977.
Snacking for most people is a reaction to toxic hunger – most people snack between meals to stop uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms from the unhealthy foods that they eat. The average number of eating occasions has increased as our diet has become more toxic, producing more cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Unhealthy food indeed does have these addictive qualities.4-6
To maintain a healthy weight we need to eat fewer total calories; eating primarily nutrient-dense (rather than calorie-dense) foods and eating fewer times per day both will help to achieve this goal. Low calorie-density (high nutrient-density) foods like greens, other vegetables, and fruits are associated with reduced total calorie intake, higher nutritional quality, and lower body weight.7-9 Conversely, high energy-density foods are associated with greater calorie intake.10 Also, contrary to the conventional wisdom, the majority of studies have not found any weight-loss or calorie-reduction benefit to eating more frequently. Consuming a snack has been found not to cause a compensatory decrease in calorie consumption at the next meal. Ultimately, snacking most often results in increased daily caloric intake. Furthermore, most studies have shown that there is no weight loss advantage to dividing a diet of the same number of calories into a greater number of meals.11-14
Eat only when you are truly hungry. For most people following a healthy diet, this will not be more than three times a day. The key factor for weight loss is improving the quality of your diet. My research has shown that eating healthy food brings a greater level of satiety, and significantly reduces or eliminates the uncomfortable symptoms of toxic hunger15, leading to greater meal satisfaction, reduced calorie intake, and attainment of a healthy weight.
1. Ogden CL, Carroll MD: Prevalence of Overweight, Obesity, and Extreme Obesity Among Adults: United States, Trends 1960–1962 Through 2007–2008. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2010.
2. Popkin BM, Duffey KJ: Does hunger and satiety drive eating anymore? Increasing eating occasions and decreasing time between eating occasions in the United States. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;91:1342-1347.
3. Duffey KJ, Popkin BM: Energy density, portion size, and eating occasions: contributions to increased energy intake in the United States, 1977-2006. PLoS Med 2011;8:e1001050.
4. Johnson PM, Kenny PJ: Dopamine D2 receptors in addiction-like reward dysfunction and compulsive eating in obese rats. Nat Neurosci 2010;13:635-641.
5. Gearhardt AN, Yokum S, Orr PT, et al: Neural Correlates of Food Addiction. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2011.
6. Taylor VH, Curtis CM, Davis C: The obesity epidemic: the role of addiction. Can Med Assoc J 2009;182:327-328.
7. Rolls BJ, Drewnowski A, Ledikwe JH: Changing the energy density of the diet as a strategy for weight management. J Am Diet Assoc 2005;105:S98-103.
8. Rolls BJ, Roe LS, Meengs JS: Salad and satiety: energy density and portion size of a first-course salad affect energy intake at lunch. J Am Diet Assoc 2004;104:1570-1576.
9. Ledikwe JH, Blanck HM, Khan LK, et al: Low-energy-density diets are associated with high diet quality in adults in the United States. J Am Diet Assoc 2006;106:1172-1180.
10. Bell EA, Castellanos VH, Pelkman CL, et al: Energy density of foods affects energy intake in normal-weight women. Am J Clin Nutr 1998;67:412-420.
11. Bellisle F, McDevitt R, Prentice AM: Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr 1997;77 Suppl 1:S57-70.
12. Chapelot D: The role of snacking in energy balance: a biobehavioral approach. J Nutr 2011;141:158-162.
13. Berteus Forslund H, Torgerson JS, Sjostrom L, et al: Snacking frequency in relation to energy intake and food choices in obese men and women compared to a reference population. Int J Obes (Lond) 2005;29:711-719.
14. Marmonier C, Chapelot D, Fantino M, et al: Snacks consumed in a nonhungry state have poor satiating efficiency: influence of snack composition on substrate utilization and hunger. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76:518-528.
15. Fuhrman J, Sarter B, Glaser D, et al: Changing perceptions of hunger on a high nutrient density diet. Nutr J 2010;9:51.