When it comes to slimming down, cutting down on calories and eating fewer larger meals may be a more effective weight control strategy than intermittent fasting, where a person cycles between brief periods of little or no eating and regular eating, according to new research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
For the study, researchers looked at electronic health records of about 550 adults and found that the total daily number of large meals (estimated at more than 1,000 calories) and medium meals (estimated at 500 to 1,000 calories) were each associated with increased weight gain over six years of follow-up, while eating fewer small meals (estimated at less than 500 calories) was linked to decreasing weight.
They also found that the window of time between first to last meal was not related to weight change.
For Chika V. Anekwe, MD, an obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, who was not involved in the study, the new study backs up well-established research demonstrating that the total amount of calories you eat plays a more significant role in weight control than the timing of when you eat.
Dr. Anekwe noted, however, that intermittent fasting has many other benefits, such as improving longevity and helping with blood sugar control.
“For some people, restricting the time interval of food intake naturally helps them to eat less overall, so for those individuals it can play a role in weight loss,” she says. “However if someone tends to eat more during the fasting window than they would have if spreading the food intake out over a longer time period, then weight loss will not be expected in that scenario.”
Certain individuals who fast may also think they don’t have to worry about how much they eat. But that’s not the case. “At times, fasting can lead to an ‘all or nothing’ way of thinking,” says Julia Zumpano, RD, with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. “For instance: ‘I haven’t eaten all day so I am going to eat what I want and as much as I want.’ As clinicians, we can help our patients by suggesting a structure for healthy meals and snacks evenly distributed throughout their day.”
Lead study author Di Zhao, PhD, an associate scientist in the division of cardiovascular and clinical epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, stated in a press release that the findings could not prove direct cause and effect that meal frequency and total calorie intake were stronger risk factors for weight change than meal timing.
Of those participating in the study, about 8 out of 10 indicated they were white adults; 12 percent self-reported as Black adults; and about 3 percent self-identified as Asian adults. Most participants reported having a college education or higher; the average age was 51 years; and the average body mass index was 30.8, which is considered obese.
The research team relied on a mobile application, Daily24, for participants to catalog sleeping, eating, and wake-up time.
“For the public, the main takeaway is that the total amount of energy [food] intake plays a more significant role in body weight than the specific timing of that intake,” said Anekwe. “That being said, it is still encouraged to focus more on quality of the food intake for health and weight management as opposed to quantity. Limiting processed foods and added sugars as a rule are important for maintaining a healthy weight.”