Snacking. Mini meals/maxi snacks. Where do you stand? We’ve been told to snack between meals or eat 5-6 mini meals to boost metabolism and lose weight, and the food industry has certainly made a mint on snack foods. But unless you’re hypoglycemic, it may not be necessary to eat 5-6 times daily and may even hinder your weight loss efforts. Will snacking, or eating small, frequent meals, help you lose weight?
3 Meals or 6 Mini Meals?
You may have heard that eating more frequent meals “speeds up” your metabolism. It is true that eating increases your metabolic rate as your body breaks down your food. Thus, it would follow that if you ate every few hours, your metabolism will remain in a constantly elevated state, right? There are a couple flaws with this logic.
For starters, this particular study followed a group of obese folks who wanted to lose weight. They ate the same number of calories daily, but one group ate 3 meals and one group ate 3 meals and 3 snacks. Both groups lost weight, but researchers found no significant difference in average weight loss, fat loss, and muscle loss. Conclusion: eating more often does not boost metabolic rate, because the frequent eater group didn’t lose more than the 3 square meals group. Also: meal frequency doesn’t make a difference as long as you don’t overconsume calories? Well, not so fast.
First off, weight loss is more than a calories in-calories burned game. Calorie reduction may certainly work for some folks, but weight loss is a hormonal game too: supporting thyroid function and keeping insulin and cortisol levels stable so there’s not increased fat storage. For some, eating many meals leads to overeating (suddenly mini meals become regular sized meals), especially if the person has a hard time understanding his or her hunger cues, often caused by leptin or ghrelin hormone imbalance. Eating frequently also keeps insulin and blood sugar levels high as the body works to process the nutrients. That’s not ideal for weight loss.
How Often Should I Eat?
Eating in regular intervals is beneficial for metabolism, weight loss and blood sugar stability. But timing matters. My recommendations are typically to eat within an hour of waking to start the day off with balanced blood sugar, then eat every 4 hours following, and stop eating 3 hours before bed.
The timing usually breaks down like this:
4pm: small snack*
*My most often recommended afternoon snacks are a piece of fruit with coconut butter, an apple with almond butter, a green juice, a mug of broth, organic turkey slices wrapped around avocado, beef jerky, lox with cucumber, or nori strips wrapped around smoked salmon and cucumber.
This timing works best for weight loss, stable metabolism, and hunger regulation. Believe it or not, eating more frequently triggers increased appetite in some people. And as I mentioned, it’s hard to keep snack portions small, so snackers tend to consume more food than non snackers. Some of my clients are eating 3 regular sized meals and a mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and before bed snack. That’s too much!
Now, there are a couple of caveats here. I mentioned hypoglycemia earlier. If someone is healing hypoglycemia, which I typically see accompany adrenal fatigue (because the adrenals help manage healthy blood sugar ranges), they may need to eat the more frequent 5-6 mini meals (mini–about 1/2 regular meal size) so their blood sugar doesn’t drop too low. These people feel shaky and irritable on the eat-every-4-hours plan, even if their meals are well designed with plenty of protein, good fat and starchy carb. Once they begin to heal, they can transition to eating less frequently.
The other exception is those who aren’t hungry first thing in the AMs. If your hunger hormones are working properly and you stop eating 3 hours before bed, you should wake up hungry. That’s ideal, because you want to consume the majority of your calories at breakfast and lunch, during the day when you’re active. If you wake up and you’re not hungry, it may be because you had a big dinner or went to bed on a full stomach, which isn’t ideal. But if you’re doing everything right and just don’t have a big appetite in the AM, fine. Wait til you’re hungry or eat a lighter breakfast and a larger lunch.
Finally, if you have trouble falling or staying asleep, you may need a bedtime snack at hour or so before bed. Avoid protein for this snack, because it can be energizing. Typically some fat and carb is fine: 1/2 sweet potato with coconut butter, an apple with 1 tbsp almond butter, a coconut flour muffin, a mug of bone broth with plenty of sea salt.
If you’re not hypoglycemic and you want to lose or maintain weight, follow the eat-every-4-hours rule and skip the snack. You may need a small afternoon snack if lunch is at noon and dinner is at 7, but for that I’ll usually drink a mug of bone broth with sea salt or have a few squares of dark chocolate and a cup of tea. You don’t need a mid-morning snack between breakfast and lunch. Of course, everyone is different, so see how the timing works for you. Also important is not to go too long without eating because then you tend to overeat when your blood sugar drops too low.
Eating more frequently doesn’t boost metabolism or increase weight loss and may actually contribute to weight gain, especially in those folks who have a problem saying when. Your meal timing will largely depend on your health goals.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.