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Mealtime matters

ANN/THE STAR – Within the realm of nutrition, an enduring discussion persists: What meal frequency best contributes to optimal health maintenance?

Is it preferable to snack on multiple small meals across the day or adhere to fewer, larger meals at conventional mealtimes?

The answer isn’t straightforward, as it hinges on an array of factors, including individual preferences, health objectives and lifestyle choices.

For generations, the three square meals a day – consisting of breakfast, lunch and dinner – have been upheld as the gold standard for a healthy diet.

This approach has its roots in culture and early epidemiological studies that extol the virtues of structured meal times.

However, as nutritional science advances, experts are now reexamining this conventional wisdom.

In recent times, there’s been a surge of interest in consuming several small meals spread throughout the day.

PHOTO: FREEPIK
PHOTO: FREEPIK

Advocates of this strategy post several potential benefits, including:

Enhanced satiety

Frequent eating can stave off ravenous hunger between meals, potentially curtailing overeating.

Metabolism kickstart

Some experts contend that small, frequent meals can give your metabolism a boost and have a favourable impact on body composition.

Steadier energy levels

Regular meals might help fend off energy slumps and maintain stable blood sugar levels.

Blood sugar management

This eating pattern could be a boon for individuals managing their blood sugar levels.

Appetite control

Smaller, more frequent meals may act as a barrier against overindulgence.

WHAT RESEARCH SAYS

Scientists have looked into various aspects of meal frequency and how they relate to various health factors. Below are some of their findings:

Meal frequency and chronic disease

Early epidemiological studies have implied that eating more frequent meals can elevate blood lipid (fat) levels and lower the risk of heart disease.

Some contemporary research has supported these findings.

For instance, a study conducted in 2019 discovered that consuming more than four meals a day may contribute to elevated “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol and lower fasting triglyceride levels, potentially reducing the risk of heart disease.

A review of epidemiological studies published in the American Heart Association’s Circulation journal also concluded that greater meal frequency is linked to a diminished risk of diabetes and heart diseases.

However, it’s crucial to bear in mind that such studies can establish correlations, but not causation.

Meal frequency and weight loss

When it comes to shedding excess kilos, the evidence is mixed.

Some studies have explored the effects of meal frequency on body fat and perceived hunger.

A study that compared three substantial meals to six smaller ones found no significant difference in terms of energy expenditure and body fat loss.

Interestingly, individuals who consumed smaller, more frequent meals reported heightened levels of hunger.

Another observational study suggested that for healthy adults, consuming meals less frequently, maintaining a gap of five to six hours between breakfast and lunch, avoiding snacking, having the most substantial meal in the morning, and fasting overnight for 18-19 hours, could help ward off long-term weight gain.

The 2020 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s Scientific Report noted the inconsistency and limitations in the current body of evidence, making it challenging to draw a definitive conclusion regarding the relationship between meal frequency, body composition, and the risk of being overweight or obese.

Metabolism boost from frequent meals

Although there is a widespread belief that small, frequent meals can rev up your metabolism, the scientific backing for this notion is rather scarce.

The thermic effect of food (TEF), which signifies the energy required for digestion, doesn’t appear to be substantially influenced by meal frequency.

Some studies have even hinted that larger meals might stimulate a higher TEF, compared to frequent eating patterns.

Meal frequency and athletic performance

While the debate surrounding meal frequency persists for the general populace, many experts contend that athletes can derive benefits from consuming small, frequent meals, especially when adhering to a calorie-restricted diet.

This approach could potentially aid in preserving lean muscle mass, boosting performance, supporting fat loss and enhancing body composition.

WHICH TO CHOOSE?

Certain individuals may stand to gain from adopting a small, frequent meal strategy, including those who:

– Experience early satiety

– Are endeavouring to gain weight

– Grapple with gastrointestinal ailments like gastroparesis (paralysis of the stomach), nausea, vomiting or bloating.

For those aiming to shed the kilos, maintaining awareness of portion sizes and adhering to daily calorie requirements is crucial.

Each meal should be proportionate to the daily caloric intake.

Meanwhile, individuals who might be inclined toward three larger meals include those who:

– Struggle with portion control

– Tend not to eat mindfully

– Lead hectic lives with limited time for meal planning

Once again, irrespective of meal frequency, upholding the primacy of whole foods and sustaining diet quality is pivotal for securing essential nutrients.

However, in the grand meal debate, there is no universal solution for determining the ideal meal frequency.

Different individuals harbour diverse requirements and predilections, underscoring the importance of considering personal goals, health status and lifestyle choices.

The central message remains consistent: whether you opt for several small meals or fewer, larger ones, the primary focus should be on cultivating healthful eating habits and sustaining a well-balanced diet.

Ultimately, it is about discovering what best suits your needs while upholding a well-rounded and healthful diet. – Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar

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