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Who gets fat, the guy who eats frequently, enjoying five meals a day, or the one who eats less often? Depending on how much you know about nutrition science, the answer may surprise you.
According to a study of eating patterns and their relationship to body size conducted at the University of Massachusetts, eating more often makes you much less likely to be obese (American Journal of Epidemiology, July 2003). So instead of starving yourself and still ending up fat, do what competitive bodybuilders do: Eat 5-6 smaller meals and snacks each day, but generally with fewer calories (unless you're an athlete in your competitive season).
For many athletes, not just bodybuilders, this eating pattern works well, says Stephanie Smith, MS, RD, a sports nutrition expert and spokesperson for the National Dairy Council. "Because so many athletes burn so many calories during their competitive season, they couldn't meet their energy needs with just three squares."
But eating more frequently doesn't automatically make you leaner. "If you're going to follow this plan, pay attention to portion size and the size of the meal," says Smith. "To go from two or three big meals to five meals, you'll want to make the meals slightly smaller to spread out the calories.
"Eating five smaller meals is a nice pattern," she continues. "You avoid peaks and valleys and keep energy levels more even. You're not getting too hungry."
It's not just hunger that's at work, though — the multitasking hormone insulin also comes into play. Researchers have found that, compared to eating multiple small meals, having fewer larger meals is associated with higher insulin concentrations in the body over a 24-hour period. Higher levels of insulin can inhibit fat breakdown and increase fat storage — the last thing a bodybuilder wants.
Insulin pushes nutrients into the cells, so while insulin does help protein (amino acids) get into the muscle, that's important only after intense bodybuilding training. Other kinds of nutrients, including fat and carbohydrate (sugar, or glucose) also get shoved in, so in general, the goal is to avoid extra-large meals to prevent insulin overproduction and resulting gains in bodyfat.
But all meals are not created equal. Which is most important? The first one, say the researchers, echoing another bodybuilding tradition. Subjects who didn't eat breakfast were 41/2 times more likely to be obese. So whether you're avoiding breakfast to save calories or to save time, it could be killing you.
Breakfast-skippers, the study notes, are more likely to be late-day bingers. It could be that they don't realize how much they're eating, since hunger distorts their perceptions. Regardless, reports suggest that individuals who don't eat a morning meal have a greater overall daily calorie intake than those who do. Moreover, it's not just habitual breakfast-skippers who eat more during the day; missing that meal just once results in higher calorie consumption for the same 24-hour period.
Another study, which used data from the National Weight Control Registry, suggests that dieters who successfully maintain their weight loss regularly eat breakfast, and that the meal may even be a factor in their success.
Furthermore, don't wait too long before scrambling those eggs. "Don't delay breakfast," Smith urges. "Be sure to eat within 1-2 hours of rising. If you don't eat until noon, you'll have been without food since the night before, your blood sugar will be low and you'll be very hungry. You'll eat much more and often many of the wrong foods."
The bottom line is that eating more frequently — but no less healthfully — can have a positive impact on both your health and your physique.