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Can you be healthy and overweight?
The research I'll be discussing today really got people's attention: the editor of theAnnals of Internal Medicine set the tone by writing an editorial titled "The Myth of Healthy Obesity." It's the secondary results of this study that I find even more interesting, however.

Small Plates? Just a Myth
Just last month I reported on a study that concluded that children will eat more when presented with a larger amount of food (News Bite, 8/1/07). Another study seemed to show that using a larger bowl (or plate, presumably) would result in serving and eating more than if a regular-sized bowl is used (10/6/06). These studies seem to shore up the widely-held belief that using smaller plates will help you eat less. 

The Price Myth
I get a lot of questions during lectures from people wanting to know how they can eat better when it's so expensive. This is, quite simply, one of the last great myths of eating healthy - ranking right up there with the fallacy that eating healthy doesn't taste good. There's no doubt that it's just as easy and economical to cook a meal that's good for you than eat one that's not.


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Should You Eat More Often?

Conventional diet wisdom says that you should eat every 2 to 3 hours. The claims vary from diet to diet, but eating more frequently than three times a day is supposed to do things like improve your metabolism, reduce hunger, improve glucose and insulin control, and help reduce your body's fat.

There aren't many studies on the subject, however. Fortunately a pair of researchers at the University of Missouri and Purdue University recently teamed up to present an overview of the current research at a symposium (J Nutr 2011;141:154-157). Here are a few of the highlights:

  • One study presented the participants with a standard-size breakfast, but on one occasion they received their meal all at once, while on another occasion the same meal was split up into smaller, equal-sized portions and they received a portion every hour throughout the morning.Then at lunch time the participants were given a meal at which they could eat all they wanted.

    Those participants who had breakfast all at once ate more at lunch than those who ate more frequently. A similar study contradicted those findings.

  • A study that compared two larger meals separated by 3 hours to eating the same amount on 6 occasions separated by one hour found that not only did the participants' stomachs empty at the same rate regardless of how often they ate, eating more frequently had no effect on how hungry or satisfied the participants felt after completing the entire meal.

  • A small group of overweight or obese women were given a 1000-calorie diet and were asked to eat either twice a day or 6 times a day. They were allowed to choose additional foods, if they wished, from a range of provided foods. Regardless of how often they ate, all of the women tended to eat about the same number of calories in additional foods.

  • Both the hormone that increases appetite and the hormone that indicates satiety responded similarly over the course of the day regardless of how often a group of overweight men were fed while on a diet designed to maintain their weight.

What this means for you

Eating more frequently did appear to help moderate glucose spikes after eating a meal - but this is not usually a concern for those without diabetes. While there's certainly need for larger and longer studies to confirm these findings, in the mean time you'll do just fine eating your three meals a day, with healthy snacks when you need one.

First posted: June 29, 2011