For many years we have been told that small, regular meals are the way to go when it comes to optimising metabolic rate and supporting weight loss.
Now new research published by Deakin University researcher Dr Rebecca Leech has found that frequent snacking appears to be doing us more harm than good in the weight control stakes.
Over a number of studies, Dr Leech examined the relationship between meal timing, meal and snack size and the overall calorie intake of both men and women.
One of the analyses of more than 5000 Australian men and women's dietary intake over a 24-hour period found three distinct eating styles — those who had regular, conventional meals, those who had slightly later meals, and those who were grazers.
The first eating style was defined as those likely to have their lunch and dinner meals close to or at 12pm and 6pm each day and accounted for roughly 40 per cent of dietary patterns analysed.
The later eaters had a high probability of consuming lunch one hour or more later than conventional eaters and accounted for roughly 35 per cent of responders. Finally, grazers reported frequent periods of energy or calorie intake and accounted for 25 per cent of women and 23 per cent of men in the study.
The study found that a grazing style of eating was linked to increased snack consumption, a higher calorie intake from snacks and eating more calories later in the day. More specifically, this style of eating was linked to a higher intake of unhealthy foods and women who were more likely to be overweight or obese.
This was one of the first published studies to show such clear relationships between frequent eating, a higher overall calorie consumption and an increased risk of being overweight or obese.
Interestingly no such relationship was found between meal frequency and an increased risk of being overweight or obese, only snacking frequency, in particular snacking on discretionary (junk foods) after 8pm at night.
For many years, health professionals have sprouted the idea of 'calories in, versus calories out' was the most important thing for weight control, without specifying whether the type of calories, or timing of when these calories are consumed is important. Now we have some data to further question this belief when it comes to weight control.
It does appear that the daily food patterns we have does impact our overall calorie intake as well as the foods we choose when we consume "meals" as opposed to "snacks" and in turn our weight overall.
There are a number of possible explanations for this — one is that consuming snacks rather than meals may result in an unbalanced intake of key nutrients which may drive excessive hunger later in the day — think a packet of chips or a couple of biscuits versus a balanced meal of meat and three vegetables and the differing effects on fullness and satisfaction.
These findings may also be partially explained by our natural circadian rhythms, in which we are much more likely to store calories we consume later in the day when our hormones shift into storage mode, and when we are less active in general. It is also the time of day when higher calorie foods including takeaway, treats and alcohol also tend to be consumed.
So based on these findings, should we be snacking at all? As is the case with all areas of nutrition, there is not a one-size-fits-all model. If you are lean, up at the crack of dawn and hungry a couple of hours after breakfast, a nutritious, calorie-controlled snack that will satisfy you until lunchtime is a good idea.
On the other hand, if you are only grabbing a muffin because everyone else is, and you are not one bit hungry it is best to wait until you are actually hungry for your next meal.
For the average person who eats breakfast at 7am or 8am, waiting to eat again until lunchtime, 3-4 hours later is a good idea.
Most of us though will need a small 200-300 calorie snack between lunch and dinner to keep our glucose levels controlled and prevent binge eating when we arrive home famished and eat everything in sight.
Good options include Greek yoghurt and fruit, cheese and crackers or a nut or protein bar.
Overall these new findings suggest that it is the constant grazing and snacking that is the primary problem for at least a quarter of Australian adults.
This means that a significant number of us would benefit from snacking less and focusing on consuming three square meals a day, with just one or two small snacks if absolutely necessary in order to control both our calorie and discretionary food intake.
Susie Burrell is a dietitian and nutritionist. Follow her on Twitter @SusieBDiet