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Can nibbling really make you thinner?

Experts refute notion that more frequent meals fire up metabolism

By James Fell, Special to Tribune Newspapers

9:55 PM EDT, June 6, 2012

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Can nibbling make you slim?

"Lord of the Rings" fans may recall Hobbits prefer six daily meals. If you Google "six meals a day," however, you'll find more than references to mythical creatures: There are a host of diet books, websites and articles purporting that having numerous small meals is critical to weight loss.

I don't know about Shire folk, but for humans, many researchers say the reasoning is flawed. As I showed in an earlier column on Kansas State University nutrition professor Mark Haub losing weight on a diet of mostly Twinkies, calories are all that matter.

I remember when six small meals a day became popular. I was a corporate drone, and Bill Phillip's 1999 book "Body for Life" permeated the cube farm. Everyone snacked on containers of cottage cheese, tuna and Myoplex supplements between meetings and marketing plans. As a father of two kids in diapers, I was baffled by those who had time or money for that. For me, eating just three meals a day was a stretch.

Many believe that eating this way increases caloric burn. In his book, Phillips asserted, "Studies show eating often helps accelerate the metabolism." He didn't provide references, and messages asking Phillips for clarification were not returned.

Regardless of the hassle it might be to eat this way, if there was a significant metabolic boost I could see the attraction. But as it turns out, there isn't one.

Crashing assumptions

Researchers from the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa published a study of 16 obese men and women in the 2010 British Journal of Nutrition that compared low and high meal frequency of equal calories and found no weight loss-enhancing effects from higher frequency eating.

And, specifically regarding alleged metabolic boost, "No difference in total daily energy expenditure has been documented as a function of daily meal number," wrote France Bellisle, a professor of eating behavior in Paris in a report of the research in a 2004 Scandinavian Journal of Nutrition.

Bellisle was referring to numerous research studies, including one by scientists from Kings College London, who studied 26 women and published in the 2001 International Journal of Obesity that meal frequency has no impact on caloric expenditure. Going back to 1993, Dutch researchers from the University of Limburg published in the British Journal of Nutrition a study of 10 men also showing high meal frequency having zero effect on metabolic rate.

If you keep looking, there are dozens of studies all saying the same thing: High meal frequency does not boost metabolism. And yet, people still believe it.

So what's the harm? If they have the time to prepare all those little meals, then why not? Because high meal frequency can make them fat.

The argument goes that having many small meals increases satiety, helping you eat less, but Bellisle's research determined that having many meals leads to overeating. The obese are often high-frequency eaters, and this is associated with higher calorie and fat intake.

"Obese people tend to eat little in the morning and much in the afternoon and evening," wrote Bellisle. "In extreme cases, a 'night-eating syndrome' is observed."

What to do?

"My advice would be three to four meals a day and no more," said Margriet Westerterp, a nutrition professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. "Those should be real meals."

Real meals — as in sitting at a table, at regular times. And no snacking.

Westerterp knows this area well, having published numerous studies on meal frequency and body weight. However, the other extreme has drawbacks as well: Although you don't want to eat too frequently, infrequent eating also can be bad.

A 2008 study of 14 women, co-written by Westerterp and published in the British Journal of Nutrition, concluded: "The same amount of energy (calories) divided over three meals compared with over two meals increased satiety feelings over 24 (hours)." It also found no difference in metabolic rate between two meals a day versus three.

Additional concerns

But blood sugar and insulin spikes and crashes also increase caloric intake, and many Internet "diet gurus" extol high meal frequency as a way to balance these. But there's no love there, either, according to a study of more than 2,700 people by researchers at the Menzies Research Institute Tasmania and published in the British Journal of Nutrition last fall. Multiple small meals had a negligible effect.

So the evidence supports avoiding snacks and eating three or four proper meals a day, but recall that Westerterp recommends these be regularly scheduled meals, and not a haphazard consumption of food. Beyond being a method to control caloric intake, researchers at the University of Nottingham in theU.K. published a study of 10 women in the 2005 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found even irregular meal patterns have a negative effect on insulin sensitivity and blood lipids, which in turn can lead to weight gain.

Those wishing to pack on muscle may think that consuming protein throughout the day helps bring the Hulk look, but Stuart Phillips, a professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, found otherwise. His team recently tested three separate groups of eight men; all consumed the same daily amount of protein, but either twice, four times or eight times per day. The four-times-a-day group had the most success, with a 30 percent higher rate of protein synthesis than the eight-times-a-day group, which in turn was slightly higher than the twice-a-day group.

Calculating calories

The Mayo Clinic website has a "Calorie Calculator" to help you determine the number of calories your body needs to maintain its weight, based on your age, height and level of exercise. Go to mayoclinic.com and type "calorie calculator" in the search field.

Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist.