If you go to most gyms and ask someone who is into training for nutrition advice, be it a trainer or a keen fitness enthusiast, you will likely get the advice to eat 3 meals and 3 snacks per day. Eating every 2-3 hours is the mainstream advice given. Most people who provide this advice are just passing on information they have heard from other people, without being aware whether this is in fact the most appropriate method to eat.
The proposed benefits of frequent meal consumption are based on two misleading beliefs. The first is that athletes and bodybuilders, who promote this way of eating, have different objectives in terms of desired outcome than the average person that is looking to lose some weight. Frequent feedings of protein are associated with increased muscle synthesis, which is always a primary objective in athletes. Frequent ingestion of moderate quantities of carbohydrates also increases glycogen repletion, which is the primary source of energy for athletes while engaging in their sport. Therefore, for athletes, eating frequently makes sense.
The second reason is based on some studies showing that following consumption of a meal, the body’s metabolic rate is slightly elevated due to the thermic effect of food digestion. This means that the body expends energy to digest food, and this can amount to approximately 10% of calories ingested. However, this temporary metabolic increase is offset by the extra calories consumed from the meal, therefore not providing any benefit at the end.
Although the belief in the benefit of eating 5-6 meals per day is widespread, there is no real evidence to support this. On the contrary, numerous studies have clearly shown that there is no benefit in snacking regularly, and that spending longer periods of time without consuming food actually provides significant benefits, especially to overweight, obese and diabetic patients. A study by the University of Nottingham  demonstrated an increase in metabolic rate after prolonged fasting by men and women. In another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , a group of men and women followed a 22 day programme in which they ate normally one day and fasted the following day. The results showed no significant difference between metabolic rates on the feeding days versus the fasting days.
In a Dutch study , 10 men were fed 7 meals per day for one week, followed by another week during which they consumed only 2 meals per day. The energy intake from food was identical in both weeks, but in one week, their food allowance was divided into 2 larger meals, while in the other week it was split into 7 small meals. Their metabolic rates were measured at the end of each week, and no significant differences between the groups were observed. In a 12-week study conducted in Prague , 54 diabetic patients were split into 2 groups, where one group consumed their daily energy allowance in 7 meals, while the other group consumed 2 larger meals of the same energy value. At the end of the study, the group that consumed their food allowance in 2 meals showed more weight-loss and better blood sugar reduction than the group that ate 7 meals per day.
Including snacks between your meals can work as a weight-loss strategy, however you have to be disciplined enough to quantify the amount of snacks you consume throughout the day, and this is where many people go wrong.
Snacking is often tied habitually to activities. Employees who spend extended hours working on a computer often associate the need for snacking when working, even though they may not really be hungry. This type of snacking increases the likelihood of overconsuming food while at work, which may result in weight-gain over time. TV watching is also often associated with snacking and many people who attempt to lose weight identify snacking while watching TV as s problematic habit.
Some people who are under stress or extremely busy at work may tend to consume moderate to low amounts of food during work times, but embark on binge snacking once they return home. They blame their weight problem on the large portion size of their dinner, but forget to consider the vast amounts of snacks they consume before and after dinner, which dramatically increase calorie intake.
How to snack wisely
The ultimate goal of any weight-loss programme is to achieve a caloric deficit. Therefore, if you include snacks in your eating plan, make sure that the calorific content of such snacks does not increase your total daily calorie allowance for that day.
Eating more snacks throughout the day also means that the portion sizes of your main meals have to be smaller. If you limit your intake to 2-3 meals per day only, your main meal portion size can be larger.
Whether you prefer to eat larger meals and fewer snacks or prefer to consume more moderate sized meals and snacks is a matter of personal preference, however you need to ensure that you remain within your calorie allowance for the day.
If you snack frequently and aim to lose weight, one of your first strategies can be to reduce the amount of snacking between meals, before even attempting to modify your main meals. You’ll be surprised how your weight may start to drop. Lastly, snack only when really hungry, and not due to boredom or out of habit.