It is a common recommendation in the fitness industry to have 5 or 6 small meals a day. However, there is no research suggesting that it is more effective for improving health, body composition or health conditions, like diabetes.
In fact, the opposite may be true!1,2,3,4 It is a recommendation that is often given to people who want to change their body composition, i.e. they want to lose weight or put on muscle.
Since many people with diabetes are overweight, fitness industry ‘experts’ will often suggest that they should do the same! However, the recommendation to have 5 or 6 small meals a day may not be the best option for anyone, particularly people with diabetes!
Why the 5 or 6 small meals a day myth exists
The theory behind the recommendation to have 5 or 6 small meals a day appears to be quite sound. It says that if you eat more often you are likely to:
However, none of these reasons to have 5 or 6 small meals a day have ever been proven! Plus, all of them can be countered in some way.
For example, if you ate the same amount of food over 3 meals instead of 5 or smaller meals the same amount of energy will be expended through the process of digestion because the same amount of food was eaten.
Also, it may be argued that less frequent meals may make muscle tissue more ‘sensitive’ to amino acids and therefore prevent muscle breakdown that way.
When it comes to a reduced insulin spike with smaller meals (which is in fact true), it is possible that a longer break between meals may also make insulin receptors more receptive to the action of insulin! This is an ideal situation for people with diabetes and is a similar effect to what happens when fasting.
Finally, it is possible that having larger meals may keep you feeling more satisfied for longer. We all know what it’s like when you have a large meal for lunch and then you don’t feel like eating until late in the evening. Then we tend to over-eat!
Another drawback of more frequent eating is the fact that it requires a lot of meal preparation and a lot of time during the day spent eating!
Who should have 5 or 6 meals a day
There are some people who simply must have more frequent meals. These people tend to be bodybuilders or people who perform a high volume of exercise.
Bodybuilders tend to have a greater muscle mass than average people. As a result, their metabolisms tend to be much faster than average people as well. This means they require a greater calorie/ energy intake. If they only have 3 meals a day they would likely find that each meal would be far too voluminous. Therefore it simply makes sense for them to spread their food intake out over more meals.
Also, people who perform large volumes of exercise, i.e. marathon runners, triathletes, etc. require greater food intake as well in order to fuel their bodies. Therefore, the concept of more frequent meals suits them too.
Should people with diabetes have 5 or 6 small meals a day?
Overall, people with diabetes are probably better off sticking to their 3 meals a day; breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with the option for snacks if they feel they need them.
Of course, they should make an effort to reduce their portion sizes, reduce their carbohydrate intake, increase their protein intake, and follow the other principles covered throughout this book.
If people with diabetes get involved in an exercise program (as they should do) then they may find that their appetite increase significantly. Therefore, the mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks become essential.
However, if you have diabetes and are quite happy to go from breakfast to lunch without a snack and/ or from lunch to dinner without a snack, then don’t have one. However, make sure of course that by not having snacks it doesn’t result in a larger subsequent meal.
Here’s a great video that discusses this topic further:
1. Cameron JD, Cyr MJ, Doucet E. Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. Br J Nutr. 2010 Apr;103(8):1098-101.
2. Bellisle F, McDevitt R, Prentice AM. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70.
3. Ohkawara K, Cornier MA, Kohrt WM, Melanson EL. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Feb;21(2):336-43.
4. Leidy HJ, Tang M, Armstrong CL, Martin CB, Campbell WW. The effects of consuming frequent, higher protein meals on appetite and satiety during weight loss in overweight/obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Apr;19(4):818-24.