3 square meals or little and often?
by Ian Craig
in Blogs

When I was trained in Nutritional Therapy, it was convention to advise our clients to consume three nutritionally well-balanced main meals, plus two snacks during the day. The basis of this argument was to keep blood sugars balanced all day long - avoiding the ups and downs of insulin and stress hormone release. I’ve recently written on both these topics, so take a look if you need a refresher: blood sugar; insulin control.

But, trends in nutrition tend to go round in circles and we end up looking at dietary patterns of our parents, grandparents and ancestors. To this end, psychoneuroimmunologist Leo Pruimboom, Scientific advisor of the Natura Foundation, suggests that we should actually be eating three square meals per day, just like we used to do. He rightly proposes that each time we consume food, even if they are healthy food choices, we spike insulin levels - so in order to reduce our susceptibility to insulin resistance and long term diabetes, we should eat less often rather than more often. His thinking is in line with the Paleo diet principles put forth by Loren Cordain a decade ago. It all makes sense - our hunter gatherer ancestors wouldn’t even be consuming three meals per day in most cases - they would only be eating when they were lucky enough to have taken down an animal and gathered edible plants.

Looking at the literature, I found one set of research studies done in 2010 (1) - the researchers split subjects into two groups - a normal protein diet and a high protein diet, and then they further split the groups into 3 meals/day vs. 6 meals/day (consuming the same overall calories). The main and very clear result from the study was that higher protein intake is better for appetite control. The 3 vs. 6 meals per day option didn’t seem to affect fullness and daily hunger except for late evening sensations in the high-protein (but not normal protein group).

So, one up for the 3 square meals per day thinking - just.

I then found a more recent article (2), which looked at a 2 meal vs. 6 meals/day option in obese women who were consuming a low-calorie diet. Contrary to Leo’s thinking, these researchers didn’t find any difference between the two groups in terms of insulin, blood glucose and cholesterol levels. What they did find though, was that when the women ate more often (6 meals/day), they retained more lean tissue (fat free mass) during the dieting process - lean tissue (including muscle) is vital for metabolic fire.

So, one up for the 6 small meals per day thinking.

Where does that leave us then? Delving further into the research, you just end up finding one study opting for more regular feeding, whereas another study opts for less regular feeding. Something I have to remind you of with research is that it is not personal to you - the best it can do is to give you the average outcomes of a group of people who were tested. Very often the subjects used for the study are not similar to you in any way - e.g it might be a group of obese women, as in the later case, or a group of university students, as is often the case with university research.

Should you go for 3 meals/day or little and often?
Whether you opt for the traditional 3 square meals or a more modern snacking eating behaviour depends on a lot of things. Our life is very different from when we were hunter gatherers; most significantly having less time to rest. Gone too are the afternoon siestas, except for in the rural reaches of Italy. We therefore need to maintain our blood sugar levels all day long despite often doing continuous activities for 12 hours plus. Some people can do this effectively with fewer meals because they are good at metabolising fats for energy - the slow burn fuel. Others tend to rely more on the fast burn carbohydrates and are therefore more dependent on the morning or afternoon snacks to avoid the slump in energy.

See how you answer these questions:
- Can you survive all day long with just a cup of coffee and piece of toast for breakfast, often ‘forgetting’ to eat lunch because you’re busy?
- Does your energy and concentration start to dwindle by mid-morning even if you’ve eaten a good breakfast and does a little snack (like a piece of fruit or palmful of nuts) help you?
- Are you normally quite productive in the morning, but are starving come lunchtime, and rely on a nutritious lunch to avoid the afternoon slump.

Okay, three scenarios for three types of people - three different sets of genetics. Actually, there are a lot more than that, but this will give you a good start in understanding yourself. In addition to frequency of eating, you need to consider the protein-fat-carb ratios in meals (which research seems to think is more important in appetite control), nutrient density (where’s your veggies?), your daily energy outputs, concentration needs, exercise patterns, your stress levels, the state of your adrenal glands (which massively affect blood sugar stability), and also your cultural upbringing, which will influence your ‘comfort’ levels around different dietary patterns.

To conclude: don’t read headlines or even scientific articles without being able to disseminate the information personally to you.

You at least only need to make this one judgement call - I need to make it for everyone who comes into my clinic room - that’s why I never write out two nutritional approaches that are the same.

References

  1. Leidy HJ et al (2010). The effects of consuming frequent, higher protein meals on appetite and satiety during weight loss in overweight/obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 19(4):818-824.
  2. Alencar MK et al (2015). Increased meal frequency attenuates fat-free mass losses and some markers of health status with a portion-controlled weight loss diet. Nutr Res. 35(5):375-383.