Girls who ate frequent meals and snacks put on fewer kilograms and gained fewer centimetres to their waistlines over the next decade than those who only ate a couple of times each day, according to a new study.
Researchers said that one explanation is that smaller, more frequent meals and snacks kept girls satisfied for longer, and prevented them from over-eating.
"Maybe if you eat smaller meals or you eat more frequently you're less likely to have a very large meal or be extremely hungry and over-eat at a meal," said Alison Field, who studies kids' eating at Children's Hospital Boston, but didn't participate in the new research.
But it's too early to say if that style of eating should be recommended to help prevent obesity in girls, or in the general population.
Frequent eaters are different
"There's always the possibility... that people who decide to eat frequently are just inherently different people than people who just decide to eat a couple times a day," Field told Reuters Health.
The new report, published online in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by Lorrene Ritchie at the University of California, Berkeley, is based on data from a government-funded study of black and white girls in Berkeley, Cincinnati and Washington, DC
Starting when girls were nine and 10 years old, they filled out food records of what they ate for a few days at a time and reviewed those records with nutritionists.
Over the next 10 years, researchers continued to track the height, weight and waist size of more than 2 100 girls.
Ritchie used those records to compare the number of meals and snacks girls ate at the start of the study with changes in their weight and waist size through ages 19 to 20.
Fewer snacks, more weight gain
Girls initially reported eating an average of about two and a half meals and another two and a half snacks each day.
As expected, no matter how frequently they ate, participants gained weight and waist centimetres over the study period as they went through puberty.
But the fewer snacks and meals girls ate during the day, the more fat they ended up putting on, Ritchie reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Over the ten years, those who started out eating more than six times a day climbed 6.5 points on the body mass index (BMI). Girls who ate three times or less went up 7.8 points.
That works out to about eight extra kilos gained by the least frequent eaters.
Watching TV affects weight gain
Girls who ate most frequently gained an average of centimetres around their waists by the time they were 19 or 20, compared to almost five centimetres in girls with the fewest meal and snack times.
That was after taking into account other measures of health and lifestyle that could affect weight gain, including how often girls exercised or watched TV and how heavy they were to begin with.
Ritchie said that some previous studies have linked more frequent snacks and meals with lower weight, but what's missing is research showing that if people change their diet habits to eat more often, they'll be able to shed kgs.
"The jury is still out," she told Reuters Health.
Skipping meals doesn’t help
"I wouldn't recommend that people go out and say, 'Oh, I eat three meals a day and now I'm going to eat five to try to prevent weight gain,'" Ritchie said.
Moderation, she added, seems to be what matters. "I would not skip meals as a way to prevent weight gain – It doesn't seem be helpful, and I wouldn't necessarily avoid snacks."
Field pointed out that the study didn't take into account exactly what girls were eating at each snack and meal time – and that could have an important effect on how much weight they ended up gaining and their overall health.
"If you're frequently eating but what you're eating is carrots and apples, that's really different than if you're frequently eating candy bars," she said.
(Genevra Pittman, Reuters Health, January 2012)
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