Want to cut your calories? Budget them by meal, study finds
Limiting the calories you consume in each meal is more effective than setting a daily allowance, researchers have found.
The official NHS weight-loss programme, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and the free app MyFitnessPal all advise dieters to stick to a daily calorie budget.
However, an international study found that people who set an allowance for each meal and snack consumed fewer calories than those who stuck to a single daily budget.
This meal-by-meal approach is already used by a smaller number of weight-loss programmes, including the paid-for version of the MyFitnessPal app.
Experts believe a similar approach could also help people to reduce their alcohol and cigarette intake and adopt a healthier lifestyle by setting themselves lower limits more frequently.
Dr Miaolei Jia, Assistant Professor at Warwick Business School, said: “Dieters are motivated to reduce the number of calories they consume.
“Every time they choose what to eat or drink is seen as another opportunity to cut calories.
“Setting a calorie budget for each meal and snack therefore provides more calorie cutting opportunities than setting a single allowance for an entire day.”
The study When Unpacking Leads to Lower Calorie Budgets by Dr Jia, from Warwick Business School, Xiuping Li from the National University of Singapore, and Aradhna Krishna from the University of Michigan, has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
In one of their experiments, the team instructed 100 people to budget the number of calories they were allowed the following day and take photographs of everything they ate.
One group set separate calorie limits for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. A second group set a single daily calorie allowance.
Participants with a separate target for each meal set an average budget of 1,528 calories. The second group set an average daily allowance of 2,011 calories.
Those who budgeted for each meal separately actually consumed an average of 1,417 calories, 219 fewer than those with a single daily limit.
Dr Xiuping Li said: “Those with a daily budget thought about cutting calories for meals such as dinner and snacks, where they thought they were most likely to overconsume, but did not think about other meals.
“Those who budgeted on a meal by meal approach cut the calories in all the meals they ate, which drove down their daily allowance.”
Aradhna Krishna said: “Our results are not just relevant for controlling how much one eats, but also how much one smokes or drink – any context where people have a motive to reduce their consumption.”