Changing your eating habits is difficult. Change, period, tends to suck. But we've got good news: If you can make it five weeks eating smaller, healthier meals, things will get easier.
That's because given time to adjust, your stomach stretches less, meaning you reach that "I'm full, I'm happy" feeling after eating less food, says Atif Iqbal, M.D., medical director of the Digestive Care Center at Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center. Reduced stomach capacity in obese subjects after dieting. Geliebter A, Schachter S, Lohmann-Walter C. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 1996, Feb.;63(2):0002-9165.
The Down Low
Think of your stomach like a muscle. When it's filled with large meals three times a day, the distensibility (the scientific term for the amount your stomach walls can stretch) increases—just like your biceps would get bigger if you were working them out three times a day, Iqbal says.
And when you head in the other direction—eating many small meals throughout the day—your stomach's capacity goes down, says Rebekah Gross, M.D., a gastroenterologist and clinical assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center. After about a month and a half of eating smaller meals more frequently, you'll naturally feel full with less food, and your body will send signals to stop eating sooner (although Gross says it's unclear if the size of your stomach itself can change—we're talking stretch).
If it sounds like there's a light at the end of the tunnel that is your hunger pangs, that's because there is. Of course, there are other variables that play into why you feel hungry, like hormone levels, psychological factors, and the sensitivity of nerves within the stomach. But of them all, distensibility seems to be easiest to change, Gross says.
The Healthy Way to Make It Happen
So we know we should be eating many small meals and snacks throughout the day to keep our energy high without risking dips in glucose levels before meals, says Gina Sam, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Center at Mount Sinai Hospital. But because the idea of “small meals” is so subjective, we asked Sam to spell it out for us.
What’s best for you depends on your individual needs—including what you actually like to eat—but this is a good place to start: a fruit smoothie or oatmeal with berries for breakfast, then peanut butter with fruit as a snack two hours later. Around lunchtime, grab a salad or rice with chicken, then another snack around 2 p.m. (nuts or yogurt), and then vegetables or baked fish for dinner.
Which sounds like a lot of eating. But don’t worry, you won’t spoil your appetite—so long as you stick with the recommended two-ounce serving size. If you don’t, your stomach will quickly return to needing more to feel full, Iqbal says.
The jury's still out on whether multiple small meals can actually affect our metabolism or lead to greater weight loss, but the doctors we spoke with say it's still the regimen they recommend for people looking to eat healthier. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger. Ohkawara K, Cornier MA, Kohrt WM. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2013, Sep.;21(2):1930-739X. Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. Cameron JD, Cyr MJ, Doucet E. The British journal of nutrition, 2009, Nov.;103(8):1475-2662. So if you're the type of person who would describe your stomach as a bottomless pit, it may be worth a try—just remember it'll take at least five weeks for your stomach to be less pliable and feel fuller, faster.