You Asked: Should I Eat 3 Big Meals Or Lots of Small Ones?

Compared to the traditional “three squares” approach to eating, the concept of grazing on micro-meals spread throughout the day is popular among weight-loss dieters. Likewise, athletes and bodybuilders hoping to add weight are often told to restrict their calorie intake to larger, more infrequent meals.

For both groups, the presumption is that the human body is better able to manage a steady trickle of food—as opposed to a sudden deluge of calories.

Along with a library’s-worth of diet books, there’s research to back up these beliefs. Numerous studies have shown your metabolism, appetite, cholesterol levels and blood sugar may all benefit from a slow-and-steady influx of calories, rather than three big blasts.

But the newest and most in-depth science says “phooey.” In terms of weight loss, disease avoidance and lifespan, you should be eating fewer meals—not more. “Even three meals might be too much,” says Dr. Valter Longo, director of the University of Southern California’s Longevity Institute.

Longo, also of Italy’s Institute of Molecular Oncology, is at the vanguard when it comes to the study of meal timing and calorie restriction. He says there’s “no question” your goal should be to eat fewer meals, and the reasons for this are myriad.

For one thing, people almost always underestimate how many calories their food contains. “If something’s 500 calories, people guess 250,” Longo says. At the same time, life’s many distractions tend to confound our efforts to keep an eye on how much we’re putting in our mouths. Give yourself six or seven opportunities to eat throughout the day, and that’s six or seven occasions when you’re likely to overeat, Longo says.

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There’s also the fact that the most convenient foods tends to be junk foods. Finding or preparing healthy meals is a challenge. So if you’re eating six times a day as opposed to three, you’re going to have a tougher time sticking with good stuff, Longo says.

Hold on a second, you may be saying. Won’t I end up overeating at mealtime if I stick to just three meals? The answer: Yes, but not enough to make up for what you’ve skipped.

A 2013 study from Cornell University found that when people cut out a meal from their eating routine, they consumed an average of 400 fewer calories per day. Research on people who fasted every other day came up with similar results; compared to a group who ate normally, the fasters’ calorie intake was elevated on eating days, but only by about 10% or 15%—not nearly enough to make up for all the calories they’d forgone.

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