It may sound counterintuitive, yet new research from the University of Missouri, Columbia, suggests that eating fewer, larger meals may prove healthier for obese women than eating smaller meals more often. More specifically, consuming three substantial meals per day instead of six small meals may decrease obese women’s risk of developing heart disease.

According to lead study author Tim Heden of the university’s department of nutrition and exercise physiology, the research doesn’t back up a general belief that multiple small meals positively affect insulin and blood-fat levels in obese women.

“The mass media and many healthcare practitioners often advocate eating several small meals throughout the day,” said Heden. “We didn’t find many studies examining or supporting this popular claim, which led to our study. Our data suggests that, for obese women, eating fewer, bigger meals may be more advantageous metabolically compared to eating smaller, more frequent meals.”

The study focused on how meal frequency affected blood-sugar and blood-fat levels throughout two 12-hour periods on two separate days. Heden and his team had participants consume 1,500 calories (14% protein, 21% fat, 65% carbohydrate) on each day. On one of the days, the women drank three 500-calorie liquid meals; on the other they had six 250-calorie liquid meals. Throughout the 12-hour window, blood samples were taken and analyzed every 30 minutes for triacylglycerol, total cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, oxidized LDL cholesterol, myeloperoxidase, paraoxonase-1 activity and insulin. On the day the women drank the 500-calorie meals three times, they had significantly lower fat levels in their blood.

With more than one-third of Americans falling into the obese category, Heden is hopeful that these study results, published online in the journal Obesity (doi:10.1038/oby.2012.171), will help nutritionists and medical professionals develop effective strategies to improve the health—especially the heart health—of obese women. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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