Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Small, frequent meals diet pattern is often recommended by many dieticians for weight loss. It is basically consuming small quantities of food throughout the day. It says that instead of having traditional 2-3 times a day meals pattern, one should eat 5-6 times, reaching up to even 10 times a day. It's also referred as 5 / 6 meals a day diet or 3 hour diet.
We recommend that unless recommended by the doctor for certain medical conditions, normal person should not go for small, frequent meals pattern.
Why small, frequent meals pattern is recommended?
If you eat frequently, you remain satiated (feeling of fullness on stomach) and decreases hunger for large meals.
Small meals are faster to digest. Good digestion of food ensures better absorption of nutrients and good overall metabolism.
Keeps blood sugar under control
Consuming large quantities of food cause greater sugar spike after meals. With small meals this risk is minimized. It also helps you to avoid episodes of hypoglycemia (low sugar).
What is recommended in small, frequent meals?
Proponents of this principle recommend that you should have small meals every 2-3 hours throughout the day. The food should include lean protein, high fiber foods, whole grains, vegetables and fruits.
But that's not in our behavior & reality
The opportunity of consuming small quantities promotes snacking, munching behavior. Practically over the long period, especially if you are working as well, it is not possible to prepare and keep small quantities of home prepared, nutritious food.
It needs a lot of pre-planning, buying variety of food items, spending far more time in preparing food, etc. If any of this part is missed in your busy schedule, you are likely to grab whatever you get around to eat (convenient snacks). And that is most likely the food you should avoid such as bread sandwich, burger, pizza, chips & cold drinks or tea and biscuits, etc.
Naturally as well, we seek variety in food instead of consuming same food item 4-5 times a day. For example, we cannot eat same roti-subji / rice 4-5 times during the work. Slowly, one stacks up fried, readymade snacks, biscuits, etc. which are energy dense.
Even if you try to keep variety in food, in any season there are actually very few options of vegetables and fruits available. Ask your Mom or wife! We have to keep rotating them. So using majority of food varieties on a single day leaves you eating same food items every day. And you can only keep on doing this daily repetition max for a month or two. Not beyond, while food habits have to be sustainable for years and years.
As per research, It is estimated that each episode of such eating contributes "additional" 200 calories into daily intake. In effect, we end up consuming more calories. (1)
In fact, beliefs about the role of higher eating frequency in adult weight management are not supported by evidence. (2) While eating more frequently reduced hunger, it may not be related to greater reductions in energy intake or BMI during a behavioral weight loss intervention.(3)
Another trial suggested no weight loss benefit is associated with frequent eating pattern.(4)
A trial found out that reduced meal frequency (2-3 meals/day) is favorably associated with improved lipid profile in obese individuals (5)
And finally, the insulin release pattern in all people. Insulin, which conserves the calories, is released after every food intake (ultradian rhythm).(8) So every time, you eat and slightly overeat, insulin is released, causing calories to be saved. End result - the more the number of times you eat, you end up consuming more calories and adding more fat in the body.
Also, the stored energy forms (glycogen from liver and fat) are not used up, as there is always some food or calories available 2-3 hour intervals. So, when will you burn your stored fat?
For whom small, frequent meals are recommended?
Clinical nutrition science recommends having small, frequent meals (small 6-10 meals/day) for those suffer from anorexia (loss of appetite), early satiety, gastrointestinal disorders where you cannot digest food sufficiently, gastroparesis (mild paralysis of intestines), cancer treatments which suppresses hunger, etc. (6)
In fact, potential complications of SFM include unwarranted weight gain, suboptimal nutrition quality, late meal times, sleep disturbances, limited intermittent fasting which is required naturally, and disordered eating that may exacerbate underlying disease (6)(7)
So, you can have small, frequent meals (6-10 meals/day), if you can plan ahead and prepare your food every day, control your food portion & calories at every meal, avoid snacking or munching junk food as an alternative and follow the strict pattern every day, every month, every year of life. Still, this will be against natural, biological hormonal rhythm of body, but what can we say,.. we will overlook it.
1) Kant AK, Schatzkin A, Graubard BI, Ballard-Barbash R. Frequency of eating occasions and weight change in the NHANES I Epidemiologic Follow-up Study. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1995 Jul;19(7):468–74.
2) Kant, Ashima K. “Evidence for efficacy and effectiveness of changes in eating frequency for body weight management.” Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.) vol. 5,6 822-8. 14 Nov. 2014, doi:10.3945/an.114.007096
3) Bachman JL, Raynor HA. Effects of manipulating eating frequency during a behavioral weight loss intervention: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.). 2012 May;20(5):985-992. DOI: 10.1038/oby.2011.360.
4) Huseinovic, E et al. “Eating frequency, energy intake and body weight during a successful weight loss trial in overweight and obese postpartum women.” European journal of clinical nutrition vol. 68,1 (2014): 71-6. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2013.200
5) Kulovitz MG, Kravitz LR, Mermier C, et al. Potential role of meal frequency as a strategy for weight loss and health in overweight or obese adults. Nutrition. 2014;30(4):386-392. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2013.08.009
6) Dashti, Hassan & Mogensen, Kris. (2016). Recommending Small, Frequent Meals in the Clinical Care of Adults: A Review of the Evidence and Important Considerations. Nutrition in clinical practice : official publication of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. 32. 10.1177/0884533616662995.
7) Paoli, Antonio et al. “The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting.” Nutrients vol. 11,4 719. 28 Mar. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11040719
8) Robert A. Ritzel, Darren J. Michael, Peter C. Butler,
Insulin Secretion, https://doi.org/10.1016/B0-12-341103-3/00178-9.