The six meal a day diet fad may be on the outs. In recent years, it’s been suggested that eating six small meals throughout the day, colloquially referred to as “grazing,” is a better approach to weight loss than the more traditional three squares. The American Diabetes Association has released a study confirming that eating two meals a day led to more weight loss than six small ones.
The study is by no means supremely revelatory—the sample size was a meager 54 people and they all had type 2 diabetes—but it has sparked debate over how many daily meals is appropriate for weight loss. Additionally, the researchers lowered the participants’ usual daily caloric intake by 500, which would lead to weight loss either way you slice it.
In the ADA study, 27 people ate six small meals a day, and 27 ate just breakfast and lunch, skipping dinner entirely. Both control groups lost weight—an average of 0.82 BMI points for the grazers and 1.23 points for the minimalists—but there are flaws with both schools of thought. The average person is too busy to prepare and eat six meals a day, and refraining from eating entirely after lunch is just silly.
While both control groups ingested the same amount of calories, the science of the study is inexplicable and has yet to be published or peer reviewed. Madelyn Fernstrom, diet and nutrition editor at the TODAY Show, says starting the day with a generous dose of calories and curbing it from there is the best way to go.
“When you translate it to real life, this could be a good way to go—hearty breakfast, medium lunch, and then a light dinner,” she said. “Or you can mix and match, as long as you keep the calories low.”
Whether two, three, or six meals a day is ideal remains to be seen, but these new ADA findings are significant in that they encourage struggling dieters to rethink their meal plans. Fernstrom also believes that human nature interferes with the six meal a day concept and often leads to over eating.
“A lot of people think, if I want to lose weight better, I’d better spread my meals out, eat constantly. But the more you graze, the more you tend to eat, for many people,” she said.
And while the six meal a day diet has been an effective weight loss strategy for some, it’s just like any diet—you have to approach it with moderation and pair it with exercise to make it work.