Naturopathic MedicineNutritionWellness

Which Is Better: Three Meals vs Frequent Small Meals?

By 27 May 2016December 30th, 2020No Comments

By WIN Contributor: Dr. Laura Imola, Naturopathic Doctor Niagara Falls

I have an eclectic approach and use a variety of therapeutics in my Niagara Falls Naturopathic practice to help optimize the health of my patients.  However, I have been committed to a journey in nutrition both personally and professionally. Dating back to my early days as a student of Naturopathic Medicine I realized that people had many questions around eating health.  This led me to study, test, research and observe the nutritional concepts, strategies, fads, belief systems, you name it, all to get to the kernel of truth when it comes to food.  Most importantly, to truly understand individualized nutrition because we are, after all, each incredibly unique with our own health histories, biochemical make up and lifestyles.

Over the years I have been a contributing writer for WO Magazine.  For their recent edition I was asked to write on a great Nutrition topic: Which is better… Three Meals A Day or Frequent Small Meals (also known as “Grazing”).  It one of many nutrition topics that I discuss during patient visits.

Does eating frequently through the day speed up metabolism?  Is three meals better than grazing?  Is eating three meals a day enough food for my body?  Which is better for my health?

I’d like to share my original article here in full.  Learn more about this topic and discover which approach to meal planning is the best fit for you. To view the edited WO Article click here.

With the abundance of differing information and philosophies out there about how to eat, it can lead to much disenchantment.  My mission is to shine a light on the path and encourage others to simply get back to eating fresh food.  If you have any questions or would like more information, feel free to email me anytime at drlaura@winhealth.ca.

Food For Thought: Three Squares vs Grazing

Most people have experienced a time when they feel like their appetite had a mind of its own.  The work day, stress levels, hormone balance and energy reserves can be strong influences on appetite and food choices.  Because of this, many people try different meal frequencies to support them through the day.  Meal frequency has been the subject of ongoing debate for a couple of decades.  More specifically, which is best: three main meals or small frequent meals?

When it comes to the opinion of fitness experts, health care professionals and researchers there remains a divide of those in favour of one approach over another.  Three balanced meals a day is ideal for many individuals.  However, there are just as many individuals who feel better when replenishing every 2-3 hours.  This is a good example biological uniqueness.  Everyone has different needs that are rooted in their physiology, lifestyle and everyday practicality.  However, there are many sides to this topic.

The Pros

A commonality toted by both methods of meal planning involves eating at regular intervals and not skipping meals.  There are countless health benefits associated with eating regularly.

Three Balanced Meals

Three meals a day was common practice up until a couple of decades ago.  Our ancestors rarely had access to extra food, so they would eat what they had at two or three points in the day.  Their food consisted of what they farmed and quantities changed given the season.  Moving into the decades of modernization, the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, three meals where the mainstay and people where in better health then than they are today.

In 2007 the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction improved body composition and cardiovascular health.  In addition, the journal Metabolism published an article that same year that also looked at reduced meal frequency.  They found that participants eating just three meals a day maintained optimal blood sugar levels.

Our history and research shows that three balanced meals a day offer adequate nourishment.  In addition, three meals can keep us healthy.

Frequent Small Meals

Eating frequent small meals, also know as “grazing,” can be an ideal pick-me-up and appetite stabilizer.  Proponents of grazing feel they achieve better blood sugar balance, energy levels and subsequently better moods.  Eating frequent small meals can assist in portion control and prevent over eating or skipped meals.  Furthermore, eating regularly can help curb food cravings.

A review of the research available on high frequency meals was published in a 2011 journal for the International Society of Sports Nutrition.  Noteworthy benefits included improved insulin levels and appetite control.

By nature of physiology, some individuals exhaust faster than others.  In these cases, refuelling more often may lead to better stamina, mental alertness and optimal mood.

The Cons

Food Quality Can Make Or Break The Benefits of Both

The effectiveness of both strategies hinges on one major factor: food quality.  Regardless of what meal pattern is chosen, if there are not enough nutrient dense foods included, such as vegetables, healthy oils and fats, lean or plant based protein and complex carbohydrates, then individuals are more apt to feel hungry and tired.

A clearer understanding of meal composition is required.  People are not often choosing vegetables, real food or home-cooked food for their meal or snack options.  Energy bars, protein powder mixes, crackers, sweetened yogurt, muffins and granola bars are popular choices.  These foods may not have enough nutrient density to support optimal blood sugar balance, energy needs or satiety.

In fact, foods that break down easily to sugar such as bread, pasta, potatoes, grain based bars, crackers, cookies and sugar containing snack food stimulate hunger, cravings and fatigue because they are quickly metabolized and cause blood sugar to spike.  When there is a consistent lack nutritious foods then all well meaning meal strategies can backfire.

Grazing Not Advantageous For Weight Loss

Much of the attention around high frequency meals came from fitness experts promoting this as a way to build lean muscle and lose fat.  However, if weight management or weight loss is a health goal, studies have repeatedly shown that grazing is not any better at achieving this than a breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule.

Researchers from the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa set out to discover if participants eating frequent small meals a day would experience a metabolic acceleration when compared to those eating the same number of calories through less meals.  The study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, in 2010, concluded there was no boost in metabolism among the small frequent meal group of participants.  Similarly, the literature review referenced earlier from the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that increasing meal frequency did not favourably change body composition, nor did in increase caloric expenditure or metabolic rate.

And while high frequency eating may control appetite and curb cravings it has also been associated with the overconsumption of the daily recommended calories, especially for those who are sedentary.  Healthy weight management involves a number of factors, with the most basic one being the balance between calories in and calories out.

Conclusion

This is a hot topic in nutrition that boils down to individuality and health goals.  Which ever option is favoured, good nutrition practices like eating regularly, choosing nutritious food and creating balanced meals, along with regular exercise, will positively impact health for the three squares and grazers alike.

Leave a Reply