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Small Meals, Big Payoff: Keeping Hunger And Calories In Check

When presented with a tempting buffet of French food, not overeating can be a challenge. But a new study by researchers in Lyon suggests there are strategies that will help people resist temptation.

People trying to keep off excess weight are frequently told that it's better to eat small amounts of food frequently during the day, rather than the typical breakfast, lunch and dinner. The idea is that more frequent eating will stave off hunger pangs that may lead to overeating.

The problem with this advice, according to Xavier Allirot, a research scientist at the Institut Paul Bocuse, just outside Lyon, is that there's not much evidence supporting it. "There is no scientific consensus as to the optimum number of meals we should have for weight management and speculations regarding this are often contradictory," he and his colleagues explain in the online edition of the journal Physiology & Behavior.

So Allirot and colleagues from several French research labs decided to do a controlled experiment. They invited 20 men to take part. The men were on average 27 years old, and of normal weight. The researchers gave the men a breakfast of 674.8 calories consisting of a slice of white bread, a croissant (remember, this is France), some strawberry jam, a pat of unsalted butter, 4 ounces of orange juice, a spoonful of sugar and black coffee or tea.

On some days they were given the entire 674.8 calories at once, on other days they got a quarter of the calories (168.7, if you've forgotten your long division) once every hour for four hours.

The researchers found that the men who had the four mini-breakfasts were less hungry at lunchtime. This was corroborated by changes in two food-related hormones in the men, ghrelin and GLP-1, that are consistent with decreased appetite.

So, would they still eat less when faced with a free and tempting meal? Yes indeed, the researchers found. The subjects were offered a buffet lunch after their experimental breakfast(s) consisting of grated carrots, pâté de campagne, rice, French beans, fried potatoes, sausages, chicken breast, cottage cheese, cheese (Comté), stewed fruit, chocolate cake, white bread and sugar.

The men consumed less of the buffet on the days when they had eaten the multi-mini-breakfasts. So eating small, but often, does seem to help prevent overindulging. At least in France.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Palca
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.