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Fewer, larger meals key to weight loss?
June 25th, 2013
11:09 AM ET

Fewer, larger meals key to weight loss?

You've probably heard that eating multiple small meals throughout the day is a good way to stave off hunger and keep your metabolism revved up while trying to lose weight. But a new study could change your diet strategy.

Eating two large meals early and skipping dinner may lead to more weight loss than eating six smaller meals throughout the day, research presented at the American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions conference this week in Chicago suggests.

"Both experimental and human studies strongly support the positive effects of intermittent fasting," lead study author Dr. Hana Kahleova told CNN in an e-mail.

The study

Researchers from the Czech Republic followed 54 patients with Type 2 diabetes for 24 weeks. The study participants were split into two groups at random. Both groups followed a diet that reduced their energy intake by 500 calories per day and contained 50 to 55% carbohydrates, 20 to 25% protein and less than 30% fat.

For the first 12 weeks, one group ate three main meals - breakfast, lunch and dinner - and three small snacks in between meals. The other group ate a large breakfast between 6 and 10 a.m. and a large lunch between noon and 4 p.m. The two groups then switched for the second 12 weeks.

Researchers asked the patients not to alter their exercise habits during the study.

The results

Although both groups lost weight and decreased the amount of fat in their livers, the group that was eating only two larger meals lost more during each 12-week session. Eating fewer, bigger meals also led to lower fasting blood sugar levels, meaning that the body's insulin production was working more efficiently.

The timing and frequency of the groups' meals did not seem to have an effect on the function of beta cells that produce insulin or on the glucose metabolic clearance rate - i.e. how fast their bodies were able to process and get rid of sugar.

Our expert's take

"This is interesting," says CNN diet and fitness expert Melina Jampolis. "But the first thing I think of is that it's not really liveable, telling people to skip dinner every day."

Jampolis is also concerned that the two groups did not end up eating the same total number of calories. "Eating six times a day, it's very hard to control calories," she says. The researchers admit that while they did their best to ensure both groups consumed the same amount, the group that ate two larger meals may have eaten less.

While the study was small, Jampolis agrees that there's research to support eating a lighter meal later in the day. Most of us consume the majority of our day's calories late at night when we're the least active, she says. And when we're not active, our insulin sensitivity drops. A recent study showed that walking for just 15 minutes after dinner can help lower your risk for diabetes. Fasting between lunch and breakfast may have a similar effect, she says.

The takeaway

Don't skip dinner altogether. Focus instead on eating a hearty breakfast and lunch, and keep your last meal of the day low in calories.


soundoff (118 Responses)
  1. aholdridge

    I've been doing Fast-5 (fasting for 19 hours, eating within a 5-hour window) for about a month and it's really worked for me, too. I know that it's either time to eat or it's not time to eat and I don't have to worry about counting calories or craving stuff outside of my 5-hour window. It's simple and straightforward. My window opens from 3pm-8pm, so a lot of the fasting time happens while I'm asleep! I've lost about 10 pounds in 4 weeks without obsessing about food at any point.

    June 26, 2013 at 13:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Tree

      I discovered Fast 5 and it really seems to work great. You have a five hour window to eat, any five hours that fits into yours schedule and the balance of 19 hours is for fasting – non caloric drinks are fine. The fasting time allows your insulin and leptin levels to stay level and not spike and believe it or not, your mind and body get adjusted to eating only during that five hour window........AND you lose weight and excess FAT!

      June 26, 2013 at 17:02 | Report abuse |
    • Kate

      I have also been doing Fast-5 with good success. I have found that using a 2-7 eating window helps control my IBS symptoms. Breakfast has always made me feel sick...perhaps my body was telling me something. There are few human studies on eating windows – I look forward to more research being done in this area!

      June 27, 2013 at 10:15 | Report abuse |
    • JonathanL

      the fast five helps especially with regulating your insulin too. One or two big meals also can increase risk of heart attacks. The most heart attacks by far during the year occur on Thanksgiving (as evidence).

      July 10, 2013 at 17:45 | Report abuse |
  2. mccrockett

    What were the reasons for the research to focus on two substantial meals a day? Why not just one substantial meal a day?

    I switched to eating, essentially, just one substantial meal a day 20 years ago. Much of the 20 years prior to changing my eating habits was spent on business travel with colleagues that religiously ate 3 meals a day and I had ballooned to 250 lbs.

    Even with one substantial meal a day, its taken nearly 20 years to get to a weight of 200 lbs. Weight loss wasn't linear over this period. I would seem to get stuck at a particular weight for a few years and then go through a short period where you would lose 5 to 15 lbs over a several month period and reach the next weight plateau.

    Perhaps its time to visit a doctor again to see if I'm still pre-diabetic.

    June 26, 2013 at 14:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Fiona

      It's age. Your metabolism changes after age 40 - it's easier to gain and harder to lose. Have you tried any of the herbal and nutritional supplements Dr. Oz recommends? They help with satiety and some even kick up your metabolism. And all are safe.

      June 26, 2013 at 14:42 | Report abuse |
    • Sun

      Oz is a quack, don't take anything he recommends.

      June 27, 2013 at 07:52 | Report abuse |
    • David

      I've been doing Fast 5 for about 18 months. Simple and effective. I enjoy the time savings.

      July 17, 2013 at 07:47 | Report abuse |
  3. Fiona

    Up until my forties I ate one large meal a day (dinner) and during the day I had nothing more than maybe toast for breakfast and a snack with tea in the afternoon. I was extremely thin and fit (walked a three-mile route with my dogs every day, and swam and did weights). Now that I'm middle-aged, I find I have to eat something mid-day (or I get a headache), so I have taken to eating a small dinner to allow calories for the mid-day meal. My thought is that in order to feel satiated (not deprived), you need the pleasure of consuming a full meal every day. If you just graze, doing the six small meals, you will always feel like you're missing something. It's good training, too, for those with a troubled relationship with food, to prepare a full meal and sit down at the table to enjoy it slowly.

    June 26, 2013 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. jadesabre

    Like aholdridge, lost about 80 pounds on Fast-5 and have kept the weight off by sticking to fast-5 for about 4 years now. Oh–and I'm very near 40, my metabolism has changed, and I take neurological medications for seizure and brain injury that can cause weight gain and can only do very moderate exercise due to spinal trauma. Still, sticking to Fast-5 under a doctor's supervision has taken and kept the weight off.

    June 26, 2013 at 15:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. PintSize

    As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, and educated myself thoroughly on the subject of nutrition to be able to help myself cope with my issue, these types of articles anger me. There is not, nor will there ever be a one-size-fits-all solution to someone's weight and health. Some people are REALLY hungry in the morning and if they try to save calories at breakfast will eat them back plus more later in the day. There are some other people that generally aren't hungry in the morning and if they try to force themselves to eat breakfast it does nothing to stop them from eating the same number of calories later in the day. The best solution is to know your own habits, and adjust your eating to fit the way your body and brain best function. I personally have found that I am not hungry in the morning, and if I eat breakfast because I'm "supposed to" I send myself into a downward spiral of guilt for the rest of the day that forces me to fixate on what I eat for the rest of the day. To solve that I don't eat until I'm hungry (usually around 11:30) and I feel much more emotionally stable for the rest of the day and don't over- or under-indulge.

    Key point: know thyself and stop buying into hype about research that may or may not even apply to you...

    June 26, 2013 at 16:12 | Report abuse | Reply
    • joethejuggler

      Amen!

      There is no one-size-fits-all approach to weight loss (other than burn more calories than you take in–though that doesn't say how best to do that). These kinds of articles tend to sensationalize what the science says.

      I'm certain even in this study there were some individuals in the 3 meals-per-day group that lost more than some individuals in the 2 meals-per-day group.

      June 26, 2013 at 17:25 | Report abuse |
    • Didi

      So true! The key is to listen to your own body. You did it right by educating yourself on proper nutrition first. Articles like this should only suggest a possible course of action. There's no magic bullet, and people should know that by now. If this type of eating strategy works for certain people, that's great, but it's silly to think everyone can lose weight and keep it off in this (or any other specific) manner.

      June 26, 2013 at 20:27 | Report abuse |
  6. joethejuggler

    "Eating two large meals early and skipping dinner may lead to more weight loss than eating six smaller meals throughout the day, research presented at the American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions conference this week in Chicago suggests."

    It "suggests" no such thing. The study compared a group eating 2 larger meals to a group eating 3 meals and 2 snacks between them. There was no group that ate 6 smaller meals per day.

    Anyway, I suspect this is the key: "The researchers admit that while they did their best to ensure both groups consumed the same amount, the group that ate two larger meals may have eaten less." The lesson: you'll lose more weight if you take in fewer calories. Fewer meals might help more people do that.

    But no one one compared this to eating more than 3 meals per day, so we can't really say how that approach compares.

    June 26, 2013 at 17:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. salestreetuk

    Losing weight has been a struggle for me since I got a desk job 8 years ago, instead of running from one place to another and lifting and moving a lot. You hardly notice it but the pounds add up gradually especially when you are not active in any sport , and than someone tells you, wow you are getting bigger. I hated it.

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    June 26, 2013 at 17:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Gary Long

    At the age of 51, I was near 400 lbs and was very sick. I had tried all the popular diets, but nothing lasted. I always gained weight back, sometimes more than I had lost. Finally I was introduced to the fast-5 diet and the fast-5 lifestyle. For the first time ever, I was able to lose all the weight and become healthy again. My cardiologist said I may be the first human ever to reverse congestive heart failure. I am now 58 and healthy as can be. I researched the facts and learned that 63.2 percent of all adult Americans are overweight. Nearly 40 percent are obese. If all these diets worked, then why are people getting fatter and fatter. I recommend that if you are a in the medical field and give advice about losing weight, learn about Fast-5 and the Fast-5 lifestyle and start really helping people. I will continue to live the Fast-5 lifestyle for the rest of my life.

    June 26, 2013 at 18:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Thin

    Nothing tastes as good as thin looks. Period.

    June 26, 2013 at 19:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Phil V

    Intermittent fasting is proven science, well beyond this study. The big challenge is to make it past all the old methodologies that not only don't make sense, but can be truly harmful for someone who is already overweight.

    Bert Herring's Fast-5 Diet book (which is free online) is a great resource. So is Martin Berkhan's Leangains site (also free). The Fast-5 Facebook page is a great interactive venue to talk with real people who experience all the benefits from abstaining from calories for most of the day: reduced hunger, healthy fat (not just weight) loss, stable blood sugar levels, consistent energy throughout the day (no more post-lunch crashes), and increased growth hormone production (which is a natural byproduct of fasting that protects muscle and burns fat).

    Look at it pragmatically: Your body only has three sources of energy it can draw from: the food you eat, the fat on your body, and the muscles of your body. Your body is SMART and will always take the path of least resistance. So, if you stretch out the amount of time you don't take in food, the more efficient your body becomes at using fat for fuel. Of course, not eating for three or four days would not be healthy, but 18-22 hours of regular fasting is of tremendous benefit to a normally functioning human. It's just hard to get past the grip on "multiple meals" that the diet food industry thrives upon.

    June 26, 2013 at 20:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Steve

    I get asked this all the time – how can I eat so much and stay so thin. Easy – I don't eat breakfast, i exercise about 4 days a week. nothing that crazy. Also no fastfood burgers and fries with a biggie soda garbage. That stuff is as bad as smoking cigarettes

    June 27, 2013 at 01:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Just me

    I went from the two large meals to five and started losing weight. The problem I had was that I started getting queasy if too long went so I would snack to take it away. Plus I need something before bedtime even if small or I can't sleep. Also, I find I don't get super hungry ever so easy to take the time to eat healthy and stop when satisfied but not stuffed. It is weird going to lunch or dinner out where a splurge is 400 calories and people keep asking if something is wrong with your food or you. I mean a restraint meal is 1000 cals plus usually. However, many restaraunts are doing under 600 cal meals and you can just take some home for another of your meals.

    June 27, 2013 at 06:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. gggg

    Oh boy. The next stupid fad. Salt bad. Salt fine. Butter bad. Oops, margarine terrible, butter good. Eggs bad. Eggs good. More, smaller meals to lose weight. Fewer larger meals to lose weight. It's all a load of crap. I'll just stick with the old, tried and true, "eat right and exercise". Amazingly, no one has ever found a problem with that.

    June 27, 2013 at 09:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. TMcDonald

    I've had success with weight loss/maintenance using the Fast 5 model of intermittent fasting. I was reluctant to try it because I thought I'd be very hungry but my body adjusted quickly and after day 3 hunger has never been a problem. I eat whatever I want between 4pm-10pm (any 5 hour window has worked for me). Another bonus-as a professional in the creative field, not interrupting my work for meals keeps me in the creative flow, so I'm more productive. Fast 5 is a non-profit founded by two doctors who aren't peddling any product. There's nothing to buy. The book is available for free at.www.fast-five.org.

    June 27, 2013 at 09:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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  17. Nutritionnerd.info

    If I understand correctly: All participants were diabetic. There were only 54 study subjects in total. And the researchers are not even sure how much the subjects actually ate. Got it. And we are supposed to take this "scientific evidence" seriously? I'd like to see a more controlled study done on a larger number of subjects without signficant known health problems. Then maybe we could learn something.

    Mike, http://www.nutritionnerd.info

    July 1, 2013 at 17:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Diane

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    July 2, 2013 at 18:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Earlene Blosser

    It is funny as I have always been told to eat more often in a much smaller amounts. Maybe it is worth making this substantial change.

    July 3, 2013 at 15:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. rvastag

    Wait a sec.  Everyone always said eating a bunch of smaller meals was good. People always told me that my eating two big meals a day, and maybe a light breakfast was bad.

    Once again .... I'm so confused.

    July 12, 2013 at 01:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. mariumstefy

    Good nutrition and low fat food keeps your body weight maintained. Yes, I agree with you, a person eating two large meals early and skipping dinner may lead to more obesity. Rather eating six smaller meals throughout the day leads to good weight loss technique.

    July 13, 2013 at 08:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. graceemma24

    I think I should try this once, because I have been using supplement to keep my body & thigh slim but its not working as much good as I want it to do. Its first time I heard about taking only 2 meals in a day and without a dinner. Sounds pretty good.

    July 13, 2013 at 09:30 | Report abuse | Reply
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    July 20, 2013 at 03:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Jose

    You know what really ticks me off...all of these supposed studies and articles that tell you one thing one week and then the opposite another week, and its almost as if these writers are just creating these articles as fillers... The real truth is not to choose to eat 6 small meals or skip dinner...the answer simply is to eat whole foods, and maintain exercise. NOTHING ELSE. Cut out dairy, and beef and eat plenty of fiber! Thats it poeple just live an active life and eat natural foods. Enough with these mixed message articles that lead people to failure!

    July 21, 2013 at 23:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. Elizabeth @ HerTrainingheels.com

    I'm Dominican and when I lived there I recall eating a heavy break fast, and lunch and very light dinner and snacking on fruits and being in great shape. No obesity in the family, until we came to the US and unfortunately not becasue of lack of resources but lack of time our meals are now lighter throughout the day and heavier at night when we eat with the family and now dealing with many ailments related to poor eating. I have now realized that it doesnt matter where we live as long as we are selective of the food we consume and prioritize our health. taking the time to prepare our meals to eat during lunch and waking up early to prepare our breakfast and making it a point to eat dinner but avoiding processed foods and smaller portions. I'm now working on this and I'm seeing a change...there are days that I'm busy and just cant do it all but I try to remember what's important taking care of my body so that I can be with my family for many years to come.

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    July 29, 2013 at 15:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. MG

    Interesting that they are talking about losing weight and consuming calories and they show a picture of a high fructose breakfast. There's alot of fruit and orange juice on top of that. hmmm.

    July 31, 2013 at 22:56 | Report abuse | Reply
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