Will five small meals a day keep you at the top of your game, or are proponents of the three-meals-a-day mantra onto something? Alice Algie seeks out expert opinion on which eating plan is best for your health

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Many experts tell us eating small meals throughout the day is one the best ways to lose weight, boost your metabolic rate and prevent food cravings. On the flip side of the healthy eating coin, others advocate eating three square meals a day to promote a disciplined diet. So which is best?

Eating more often

Followers of the ‘eat often’ school of thought advocate consuming a variety of small meals throughout the day for optimal health. Eating at regular intervals is believed to send a signal to the body that it doesn’t need to store calories as energy.

“When people skip meals their metabolism can put itself into survival mode. This means the body slows the metabolism down, so energy can be conserved,” says Lisa Renn, an accredited practising dietician from the Dieticians Association of Australia.

“Eating regular meals means the body’s metabolism does not have to decrease,” she says.

Skipping meals or placing your meals too far apart may also result in low blood sugar levels, which can lead to food cravings and hunger pangs.

Consequently, eating small meals frequently throughout the day can help stabilise blood sugar levels, control your appetite and prevent bingeing.

Eating too much

While the concept of eating regular small meals throughout the day seems like a good way to control your appetite, it does pose some health problems.

“Prescribing everyone to eat five to six meals a day may be a disaster for some people, as those prone to overeating may simply used it as an excuse to eat more,” Renn says.

She says the concept of eating more frequently should involve reducing the size of main meals, while adding small snacks.

“If you don’t have control over your meals, the portion size of the main meals may not decrease and you would not be successful in creating a calorie/kilojoule deficit for weight loss,” Renn says.

Many women find it hard to read their body’s hunger signals, and for those who are constantly eating throughout the day it is important to monitor calorie intake to ensure you aren’t over-indulging.

If you find yourself overeating at each meal, it may be a good idea to reassess your eating plan and make changes to ensure you aren’t exceeding your daily nutritional requirements.

Why three meals may be better

The nutritional needs of every woman differ, so the age-old concept of three basic meals a day may be the food plan to suit your needs.

It is vital to monitor the calorie and fat content of each meal, which is why eating three meals a day can be convenient. For busy office workers who spend long hours sitting on their collective proverbial, it can be near impossible to plan and monitor five or six nutritionally balanced meals without succumbing to the snack box.

Consuming three balanced meals a day presents a convenient way to ensure a balance of nutrients for top functioning on a day-to-day basis.

“However, if you find you are overeating at these three meals and putting on weight, then it may be better for you to add in a snack between meals,” Renn says.

This may help reduce your appetite and better control your food portions. Snacking on fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts in between three main meals may help keep you going and prevent you from overeating at your next meal.

Listen to your body

As with all eating plans, there are factors we should be cautious of in order to get the most out of every meal.

Eating three meals a day means your body has more time to digest the food before the next sitting. This can cause extreme hunger, which can lead to overeating.

“Being able to recognise when you are full means you can stop eating before you overeat,” Renn says.

“Healthy eating and maintaining a healthy weight is the result of a series of good decisions and good planning. Your eating decisions depend on your ability to know when you are actually hungry and when you are full,” she says.

This is why it may be beneficial to snack regularly in between meals. Light snacks will help regulate your blood sugar and keep you feeling satisfied without adding too many extra calories to your daily intake.

The foundation to your day

No matter what food plan you follow, breakfast remains the most important meal of the day for anybody looking to maintain a healthy weight.

Renn notes that breakfast eaters are more likely to be in a healthy weight range compared to non-breakfast eaters.

“Those who skip breakfast are more likely to snack on less nutritious meals during the day, resulting in a higher intake of fat, which contributes to weight gain,” she says.

Overnight your body is starved of food, which means breakfast is essential for restoring essential nutrients and vitamins to give you the energy needed to start your day. If your body is starved of nutrients, it begins to store extra fat to use in times of nutritional deprivation.

Failing to eat breakfast can also result in mood swings, lack of mental clarity and a deficiency of essential nutrients such as carbohydrates, dietary fibre and some vitamins and minerals.

“Starting the day with breakfast is a simple way to help make a difference to overall wellbeing and your ability to function well over the day,” Renn says.

Energy in, energy out

While theories on the number of meals you eat per day are varied, there is one factor vital to all eating plans, and that’s monitoring the energy you put into your body through food with the energy you burn through exercise.

Maintaining a healthy balance between the two is essential to losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight. If your total energy consumption is greater than what you burn, it will be impossible for you to lose weight.

Alternatively, consuming too little calories can lower your metabolism, lead to malnutrition and result in fatigue, mood swings and a lowered immune system.

Healthy eating requires a lot of planning. So whether you eat five to six small meals a day or three larger ones, it’s essential to monitor the energy and nutritional content of each meal to ensure you’re eating what’s best for you.

“In order to have a long term benefit to your weight and metabolism you need to be able to sustain any changes you make,” Renn says.

Ask yourself why you may be skipping meals or overeating, and work out ways to overcome these issues. This is essential to overcome any problems you may have and create a sustainable eating plan to improve your health and wellbeing.