If we exercise regularly, should we be eating three times a day or having smaller, more frequent meals? We weigh up the evidence...
The general theory behind eating small, more frequent meals is that it will increase your metabolism (how fast the body burns kilojoules). However, despite more than 40 years of research, there is still no consensus on whether we are metabolically better off eating three regular meals a day or five or six smaller ones throughout the day.
The few studies done on meal frequency show eating regularly is more beneficial to your health than eating at irregular times. A study published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared people who ate the same amount of kilojoules in one meal to ones who spread it over three meals. Results showed those who consumed one meal a day were hungrier and had significant increases in cholesterol and blood pressure. However, there was little evidence to suggest that eating regularly will increase the metabolism.
Given the simple equation for weight maintenance is "kilojoules in = kilojoules out", what it boils down to is whether eating more frequently helps us to burn more kilojoules in a day or eat fewer kilojoules?
As far as increasing the metabolism, the one thing that has been proven to significantly speed up metabolism is exercise. As for eating fewer kilojoules, this depends entirely on the individual. The truth is, the more times you sit down to eat a meal or a snack, the more opportunities you have to overeat. However, for people with no appetite, eating frequent mini-meals may play an important role in helping them eat enough.
What it comes down to is personal preference. Almost all experts agree the most successful formula for maintaining a healthy weight is to pay more attention to the portion size, keep active, eat regularly - whether that is three times a day or six - and eat a balanced diet.
Food and exercise
No matter how often you eat during the day and how much exercise you do, breakfast is still the most important meal. Eating breakfast kick-starts your metabolism, increases your nutrient intake and makes you less likely to binge-eat later in the day - all important points if you exercise regularly.
Food affects your performance and the way you feel while you're exercising. When you exercise after a large meal, you may feel sluggish or have an upset stomach. That's because your muscles and your digestive system are competing with each other for energy resources. On the flip side, not eating before you exercise can be just as bad as eating too much because low blood sugar levels can make you feel weak and/or tired. Ideally, you need to eat two to three hours before you exercise to provide your body with energy, then again within two hours of finishing your workout to give your muscles the nutrients they need to fully recover.
Make a healthy breakfast a daily habit.
Consuming smaller, frequent meals and snacks may control your appetite and ensure a variety of nutrients. However, if you snack, be sure to reduce the amount of food you eat at meal times.
Take in adequate kilojoules earlier in the day to reduce hunger and overeating later.
How to get the most from your workout
Before you exercise: eat large meals at least three to four hours before exercising. If you're having a small meal, eat two to three hours before exercising. The best foods for pre-exercise meals are easily digestible and low in fat and kilojoules, such as low-fat yoghurt and milk, wholegrain crackers and fruit.
After your workout: to help your muscles recover, opt for a meal that contains both protein and carbohydrates, ideally within two hours of your exercise session.