Here’s what you need to know.
Besides drinking water, making healthy meals ahead of time, and cutting soda, one of the most common weight-loss tips on the interwebs is that eating lots of small meals = major pounds-dropping success.
Sounds legit, right? But when it comes down to it, the science backing this theory up isn’t quite as clear cut as the Instagram success stories.
For example, a 2014 study presented at Society for Endocrinology's annual conference suggests that the frequency of meals doesn't result in any more calories burned at the end of the day. For the study, researchers asked 24 lean and obese women to eat two meals a day or five meals a day on separate days.
Both meal plans had the same number of calories. The researchers found that both obese and lean women burned the same number of calories over a 24-hour period no matter how many meals they ate that day.
On the flipside, a 2015 study found that, on average, people who ate six times or more per day ate fewer calories, had a lower body mass index, and ate more nutrient-rich foods than those who didn't eat at least six times a day.
Despite the confusing science, this strategy can work in your favor, says Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet. Gans says some of her clients have benefitted from eating five or six small meals a day, especially women who wait way too long to eat and end up overeating because they’re so OMG hungry. "Smaller meals throughout the day helps to curb their hunger, so they're are less likely to go overboard," she says.
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Gans says her clients who have had success with a mini-meals plan add in small snacks between breakfast, lunch, and dinner once or twice a day, rather than treating each snack like an actual meal, she says.
If you’re on team graze or just want to give it a go, follow these tips to make sure you're on track to stay satisfied and lose weight.
Small meals need to be balanced just like larger meals, Gans says. That means you need to include a source of healthy fat, protein, and high-fiber carbohydrate into each one, she says.
Some great options include: Greek yogurt and fruit, cottage cheese and carrots and celery, a slice of whole-grain toast with turkey and tomato, whole-grain crackers with cheese and apple slices, or scrambled eggs with veggies, says Natalie Rizzo, R.D. of Nutrition à la Natalie.
Since the biggest pitfall of eating several meals a day is busting your calorie budget, it's important to calculate just how much you plan to eat all day before divvying up your meals, says Christy Brissette, R.D., president of 80 Twenty Nutrition.
First, estimate the number of calories you need in a day, and then divide that by five or six (depending on how many meals you want to eat) to figure out how many calories you should be consuming at each mealtime. So if your calorie goal is 1,500 per day and you eat six meals a day, each mini meal should be about 250 calories.
Though your calorie needs really depend on your goals and your activity level, a dietitian can help you make sure you're on the right track.
If you're eating frequent, small meals, timing is super important, says Brissette. You should never go more than four hours without eating, she says. So if you have breakfast at 6 a.m. that means your next meals will be before 10 a.m., 2 p.m., 6 p.m., 9 p.m., and 11 p.m.
You know that prepping healthy meals and snacks ahead of time keeps you from resorting to vending machine chips and fast food when you're hungry and in a rush, and that's especially important when you're eating six meals a day, says Brissette. She likes to prep on Sundays by baking chicken breasts, cooking whole grains and beans, chopping up veggies and fruit, and portioning everything out into containers so you have healthy options on the go.
And for those times you're fresh out of healthy, portioned options, "Keep unsalted nuts and seeds in your purse, bag, or car, so you always have a healthier alternative when you're hungry," she adds.