Eat More Often, Weigh Less

The less often girls eat, the more weight they gain, according to a new study by Lorrene D. Ritchie, a researcher at the Atkins Center for Weight and Health. The 10-year study tracked the eating habits of more than 2,300 girls, starting at ages 9 to 10, to examine the relationship between eating frequency and weight gain as girls go through adolescence. Ritchie found that girls who ate more frequent meals and snacks had a lower body mass index (BMI) and smaller waist circumference than girls who ate less frequently.

“More frequent meals and snacks may have kept girls satisfied for longer, thwarting overindulgence,” said Ritchie. The analyses adjusted for race, parental education, exercise and television habits, calorie intake, and other factors. Girls who ate less frequently gained nearly one BMI unit and over a half-inch in waist circumference more than girls who reported eating more than six times per day.

“Although we did not take into account the type of foods and beverages consumed at each eating episode, naturally we’d recommend for health that you snack on an apple or carrot sticks instead of a cupcake or some potato chips,” Ritchie said.

Nearly one-third of American children are overweight, and obese adolescents tend to remain obese as adults. Could small, frequent snacks and meals be a new weapon combatting the obesity epidemic? “We need more research before we can recommend to children that they snack more often,” Ritchie said. “But skipping healthy meals or snacks as a way to prevent unwanted weight gain does not appear to be helpful.”

The study, published in the February 2012 issue of American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, established definitions of meals, snacks, and eating frequency that could be important groundwork for future researchers.

THE WRIGHT STUFF: In February 2012, professor Brian Wright was named a Distinguished Fellow of the Australian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society.