By Mark Faries, PhD

Howdy, I am Dr. Mark Faries and we are here separating lifestyle medicine fact from fiction.

It seems like every day we see another report online about two types of eaters: nibblers and gorgers. Depending on the report, they each are said to cause weight gain or weight loss. But is that fact or fiction?

So, are you a nibbler or a gorger? Online reports are popping up, again, regarding a new study. It challenges the notion that frequent, small meals are better than fewer, larger meals per day for weight loss.

For example, Women’s Health magazine reposted a Time-dot-com article, that states, “Don’t believe the hype, dieters. Eating five meals a day won’t make you any skinnier, a new study shows.”

Actually, this new study is nothing new, but there’s a catch that most people completely miss with this claim.

Traditionally, most people think that eating several, smaller meals per day will boost their metabolism. And to a degree, it’s true.

During and right after eating we get a slight boost in metabolism, called the thermic effect of food or TEF. In other words, TEF is the energy that we use while digesting, absorbing and distributing the nutrients of a meal.

The TEF makes up about 10% of our total daily caloric expenditure. So the thought is, eat more often and then we can use more energy as typically measured by calories.

In the early 1960s, a really neat study was done by Dr. Byron Gwinup and his colleagues. They first noticed that many animals ingest small portions of food throughout a day—the nibblers. While man, on the other hand, tends to eat large meals, infrequently—the gorgers.

Research up to that point had suggested that a rat, a nibbler, trained to eat its normal food in one or two meals per day is prone to becoming obese, having high blood sugar and suffering from high cholesterol.

Since this time, many studies have looked at the frequency of meal intake. The results have ranged from no difference in weight loss when the frequency of eating varied to some reduction in serum lipids.

So, why is this potentially not a closed case for eating frequency being the root cause of weight gain or weight loss? Because of one other very important factor: Our behavior.

Studies that took eating behaviors into account highlighted the impact of giving into urges to eat even when not hungry, whether low fat or high fat foods were chosen, and sugary versus non-sugary snacks were eaten. That was far more important in determining weight gain or weight loss than eating frequency alone.

Also, a very important landmark study found that, on average, 784 women and men who had successfully lost and maintained at least 30lbs for five years had an average of five eating episodes per day. But they also found that, on average, the eating episodes ranged from about 2-8 eating episodes per day. Thus, they all succeeded, despite their differences in meal frequencies.

It makes you wonder why all the online articles left out the key factor of behavior.

The verdict on these claims for the case about weight related effects of being a nibbler or gorger is actually neither fact nor fiction. It’s more of a clarification about the facts.

Ok, to sum up with my message about nibbling and gorging, just remember that meal frequency can lead to both weight loss or weight gain. We must use what works for us.

If eating 7 to 8 times a day allows you to eat healthfully, then eat 7 to 8 times per day. If you eat more healthfully with three meals a day, then do that.

The keys are to:

1. Pay attention to what you eat and self-monitor your eating behaviors. Pay attention on purpose.

2. Eat with self-control so that you can manage the quantity of the food.

3. Choose nutritious options.

Meal size and frequency influences metabolic endotoxaemia and inflammatory risk but has no effect on diet induced thermogenesis in either lean or obese subjects. Piya M, Reddy N, Campbell A, et al. (2014). Endocrine Abstracts. 34, P226.

Effect of Nibbling Versus Gorging on Serum Lipids in Man. Gwinup G, Byron R, Roush W, et al. (1963). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Oct; 13:209-13.

A descriptive study of individuals successful at long-term maintenance of substantial weight loss. Klem ML, Wing RR, McGuire MT, Seagle HM, Hill JO. (1997). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Aug; 66(2):239-46.

Mark D. Faries, PhD

Mark has a PhD in Behavioral Health and an MS in Exercise Physiology. He is an Associate Professor and State Extension Health Specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and has developed lifestyle medicine curriculum and advocacy. He has served on the Board of Directors of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, is founder of Lone Star Lifestyle Medicine for Texas and is founder of FitnessPudding.com.

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