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Listener Question: How Many Meals Should I Be Eating Daily to Lose Weight?

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Listener Question: How Many Meals Should I Be Eating Daily to Lose Weight?

Mar 30, 2017

Looking to lose some weight? You’ve probably heard that eating five small meals a day is the secret. Or maybe it’s three large ones? What does the research suggest? On this Listener Question, Theresa Dvorak, registered dietitian at University of Utah Health, clears up the confusion about meal frequency.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Need reliable health and wellness information? Don't listen to the guy in the cube next to you. Get it from a trusted source, straight from the doctor's mouth. Here's this week's listener question on The Scope.

Interviewer: Today's listener question, I think, is one that a lot of us have struggled with. I know I have. Three big meals versus several smaller meals throughout the day, "grazing," as they call it. Is one better than the other? I'm going to ask our expert right here. She's a registered dietitian, Theresa Dvorak, from the Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology at University of Utah College of Health. Three big meals versus several smaller meals, you can go online and find cases for both. What does the research say?

Theresa: The research really supports both, honestly.

Interviewer: Okay.

Theresa: I know. It's one of those, "Well, great, thanks." But there really is . . . we see positive health management, weight management, along with weight loss following multiple food meal plan practices. So whether you're just consuming three meals and breaking your calories into those three or spreading them more, say, through five or six smaller meals throughout the day.

The big take-home for weight management, weight loss, is total caloric intake. So how many calories are you consuming during an entire day? So what we see metabolically as well is that we like to spread those calories evenly throughout the day. But whether that was spread in three even meals or over six relatively even meals, it really doesn't seem to matter.

Some individuals, depending on their own physiology and their own kind of genetic makeup will tend to do better on one versus the other. And that really just takes some trial and error. But research-wise, we see that individuals can successfully maintain weight and then also lose weight on all those different meals plans.

Interviewer: So if I'm only able to get kind of three bigger meals throughout the course of the day because that's all my schedule will allow, I shouldn't stress out about that because I've heard somewhere else that grazing is actually going to help my weight loss?

Theresa: Right. No.

Interviewer: It's those total calories.

Theresa: It is. It is and really trying to manage the length of time in between your meals. So what we find is also . . . is that when we go longer than say about five hours without eating, that we tend to kind of rate higher on a hunger scale. We tend to get really hungry, overly hungry, almost, when we come to that next meal. And then that's what tends to lead to overeating in that particular late meal.

So if I had lunch at, say, 11:30, but I didn't have dinner until, say, 7:00, I'm going to be exactly ravenously hungry and I'm going to have a tendency to eat quickly and consume more calories than if I had eaten a little bit earlier. So if you've got a long span of time, certainly a snack is going to be helpful in managing those hunger cues so that your dinner comes along, you're still hungry, but it's not kind of like that ravenous hunger, that over-hunger where we tend to overeat.

Interviewer: So it sounds like you're not going to be able to give me an answer. I'm going to have to find out what works for me.

Theresa: It is. And maybe it changes from day-to-day.

Interviewer: And that's okay. Sure. Got you.

Theresa: And maybe some days are going to be fairly structured and consistent in my timing of eating. And other days, maybe I have to plan that I've got a late meeting or an early meeting that I'm going to have to maybe plan a snack for because it's not going to fit into my exact schedule.

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