If you feel like you're doing everything right but still struggle to lose weight, eating every two hours — or any similar schedule of frequent, small meals — may help. But if you follow this approach, you need to beware of a few pitfalls.
The Conflicting Scientific Evidence
Is eating every two hours better for weight loss than eating less-frequent meals? So far, clinical trials haven't arrived at a clear-cut consensus. In fact, there's quite a bit of conflict between sets of results.
For example, in the December 2015 issue of Frontiers in Nutrition, an analysis of 25 studies (15 of which were conducted on humans, with the others done on animals) yielded inconclusive results. The researches note that "contrary to what is commonly proposed in the lay literature, eating more frequently during the day ... may not assist with reducing energy intake or improving weight status."
At the same time, they also note that when examined across studies, there is great diversity in how eating frequencies were manipulated and the types of measures collected to judge results. No wonder it's so difficult to reach a scientific consensus.
Another convincing analysis, which included data from more than 50,000 adults age 30 or older, was published in the July 2017 issue of the Journal of Nutrition. Here, researchers reported that people who ate one or two meals a day had a reduction in body mass index (BMI) when compared to those who ate three meals a day. However, those who ate more frequent meals or snacked throughout the day had a relative increase in BMI.
But Harvard Health Publishing summarizes a few studies suggesting that there may, in fact, be an inverse relationship between weight and eating frequency. To put it another way, people of normal weight, or those who were obese but lost the weight and have maintained keeping it off, typically eat more than three times per day.
Read more: Meal Plans for 6 Meals a Day
Eating Every Two Hours
If there's one thing these conflicting studies do prove conclusively, it's that there is no single one-size-fits-all solution for weight loss. Unless a doctor has advised you against it, there's no harm in experimenting with eating every two hours. The worst-case scenario is that you decide this approach isn't for you and end up trying something different.
Even better, there are a few tricks you can use to avoid the potential pitfalls of this eating style, gleaned largely from the conflicting study designs in the aforementioned research.
Start by setting a calorie limit and sticking to it. If you don't, it's all too easy to accidentally graze your way to a calorie surplus and end up gaining weight instead of losing it. You can set an appropriate calorie goal by consulting the Department of Health and Human Services table of estimated calorie needs according to your age, sex and physical activity level.
The values you find there are to maintain your weight. To lose weight, either decrease your total calorie intake or increase your physical activity, or a combination of both, so that you burn 500 to 1,000 calories more than you consume every day. That calorie deficit sets you up for losing 1 to 2 pounds per week — the rate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends as both healthy and sustainable.
How to Do It
Cooking every two hours really isn't viable, so prepping your food ahead of time can make it much easier to stick to a plan of eating every two hours. That could mean cooking weekly and freezing leftovers to be eaten later, or prepping fresh fruits and veggies as snacks every morning. Portioning your food out ahead of time also makes it easier to stick to your calorie limits, because you know exactly what you're consuming.
Last but not least, keep an eye on your hunger. There are conflicting reports on whether eating more frequently increases or decreases hunger overall. One common strategy for battling hunger is to increase your intake of fiber-rich fruits, veggies and whole grains, and to make sure you drink plenty of water.
- Journal of Nutrition: "Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Eating Frequency and Weight Loss"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "Eating Frequency, Food Intake, and Weight: A Systematic Review of Human and Animal Experimental Studies"
- Department of Health and Human Services: "Estimated Calorie Needs Per Day by Age, Sex and Physical Activity Level"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "What Is Healthy Weight Loss?"