Objectives: To investigate the impact of irregular meal frequency on body weight, energy intake, appetite and resting energy expenditure in healthy lean women.
Design: Nine healthy lean women aged 18-42 y participated in a randomised crossover trial consisting of three phases over a total of 43 days. Subjects attended the laboratory at the start and end of phases 1 and 3. In Phase 1 (14 days), subjects were asked to consume similar things as normal, but either on 6 occasions per day (regular meal pattern) or follow a variable predetermined meal frequency (between 3 and 9 meals/day) with the same total number of meals over the week. In Phase 2 (14 days), subjects continued their normal diet as a wash-out period. In Phase 3 (14 days), subjects followed the alternative meal pattern to that followed in Phase 1. Subjects recorded their food intake for three predetermined days during the irregular period when they were eating 9, 3 and 6 meals/day. They also recorded their food intake on the corresponding days during the regular meal pattern period. Subjects fasted overnight prior to each laboratory visit, at which fasting resting metabolic rate (RMR) was measured by open-circuit indirect calorimetry. Postprandial metabolic rate was then measured for 3 h after the consumption of a milkshake test meal (50% CHO, 15% protein and 35% fat of energy content). Subjects rated appetite before and after the test meal.
Results: There were no significant differences in body weight and 3-day mean energy intake between the regular and irregular meal pattern. In the irregular period, the mean energy intake on the day when 9 meals were eaten was significantly greater than when 6 or 3 meals were consumed (P=0.0001). There was no significant difference between the 3 days of the regular meal pattern. Subjective appetite measurement showed no significant differences before and after the test meal in all visits. Fasting RMR showed no significant differences over the experiment. The overall thermic effect of food (TEF) over the 3 h after the test meal was significantly lower after the irregular meal pattern (P=0.003).
Conclusion: Irregular meal frequency led to a lower postprandial energy expenditure compared with the regular meal frequency, while the mean energy intake was not significantly different between the two. The reduced TEF with the irregular meal frequency may lead to weight gain in the long term.