In recent years we have learned that it is not only what we eat that matters, but how and how often we eat it. In this sense, our research team has shown that both the frequency of meals and their regularity are related to a lower body mass index and less fat accumulation.
These results coincide with other epidemiological studies that also conclude that eating five times a day can be a strategy to prevent obesity. Why? The answer is complex, but there are certain mechanisms that can explain it.
1. The longer we go without eating, the hungrier we will be… and we will eat more
Appetite and satiety are regulated in a homeostatic way, this means that the longer we have spent fasting, the hungrier we will be. It is inevitable: if we have had breakfast early and, for some reason, we eat later than usual, we will eat much more food than necessary. This is because our energy levels (and, above all, glucose) will be so low that when we sit down at the table, we will devour.
On the other hand, if we distribute the intake of energy and nutrients throughout the day, hunger will only be that sensation that tells us that we have to eat, without more. The recommendation to take five shots a day does not refer to five binges, but to three main meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and two small snacks, one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon.
In this recommendation we must also include that dinner is not copious and that it is at least 2 to 3 hours away from the time we usually go to sleep. It is very important that at night, when we should be sleeping, we do not eat. The body is not physiologically programmed to manage nutrients and energy during the hours of sleep.
2. The body manages calories and nutrients better, especially glucose
In this sense, the results of experimental studies suggest that a frequency of five meals a day is associated with a increased caloric expenditure and a higher utilization rate of fat stores. In addition, our body uses calories and nutrients as they arrive. Thus, from each intake, only a small part of the calories will be stored as a reserve in the adipose tissue.
On the other hand, if we eat fewer but larger meals, we will store more of the excess energy. Hence a lower frequency of meals is associated with overweight and obesity.
Not because we eat less times a day our body is going to use energy more efficiently!
Along these same lines, it has been shown that dividing energy intake into small meals during the day is associated with better control of glucose levels after eating. In other words, the human body manages carbohydrates more efficiently when they are ingested in distributed intakes than all at the same time.
Let us remember that in order to use the energy that the carbohydrates (in the form of glucose), we need the pancreas to generate and secrete a very important hormone, insulin. If a lot of glucose reaches our bloodstream at the same time, this will represent an overexertion for the pancreas, since it will have to generate much more insulin.
For once, nothing will happen, but if it is maintained over time, in the long run it can generate metabolic alterations. For this reason, people with diabetes are always recommended to split their carbohydrate intake. Thus, they achieve better control of this pathology.
3. Higher meal frequency is associated with a healthier lifestyle
Lastly, studies indicate that greater meal frequency is associated with a healthier diet and lifestyle. Although we still cannot explain the cause-effect relationship for sure, we do know that the combination of eating 5 meals a day and following a healthy diet is associated with a lower incidence of overweight and obesity.
So how often should we eat? Published studies indicate that it would be advisable to do it every 3 or 4 hours. It is important to insist that eating with a certain frequency does not mean that we have to eat more, but that we must distribute the daily caloric intake.
Similarly, if we maintain a certain rhythm in our meal times, we will avoid snacking. Sometimes it is often confused with snacking, when the reality is that it decreases when there is a pattern of meals appropriate to our lifestyle.
Let’s take an example (which each one should adjust to their time habits): if we have breakfast at 8:00, the ideal would be to have a small snack at 11:00, eat at 2:00 p.m., have a snack at 5:00 p.m. have dinner at 9:00 p.m. In this way, we will always arrive with the right hunger to eat. In addition, as we have mentioned, this guideline will help our body to manage the energy and nutrients in the diet more efficiently, something that in the long term will help us prevent obesity.
Finally, it should be remembered that in matters of food and health, everything adds up. It is useless to eat five meals a day if we do not take into account the quality of the diet or if our meal times are unstructured, without forgetting the importance of staying physically active.
*To read the original post, click here.
*By Maria Fernanda Zeron Rugerio, researcher at the Department of Nutrition, Food Sciences and Gastronomy, and Maria Izquierdo-Pulido, professor at the Department of Nutrition, Food Sciences and Gastronomy, at the University of Barcelona.
*The Conversation is an independent, nonprofit source for news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts.