Girls who ate frequent meals and snacks put on less weight and gained less on their waistlines over a decade than those who only ate a couple of times a day, according to a U.S. study.
Researchers, who tracked more than 2,000 girls for the study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, said that smaller, more frequent meals and snacks may have kept girls satisfied for longer, preventing them from over-eating.
But they added that it was too early to say if that style of eating should be recommended to help prevent obesity in girls, or in the general population.
"I wouldn't recommend that people go out and say, 'Oh, I eat three meals a day and now I'm going to eat five to try to prevent weight gain'," said study author Lorrene Ritchie, at the University of California, Berkeley, noting that moderation appeared to be what matters.
"I would not skip meals as a way to prevent weight gain -- it doesn't seem to be helpful, and I wouldn't necessarily avoid snacks."
The study is based on data from a government-funded study of black and white girls in Berkeley, Washington D.C., and Cincinnati, Ohio.
Starting when the girls were nine and 10 years old, they filled out food records of what they ate and when for a few days at a time, and reviewed those records with nutritionists. Over the next 10 years, researchers tracked the height, weight and waist size of more than 2,100 girls.
Ritchie used those records to compare the number of meals and snacks girls ate at the start of the study, with changes in their weight and waist size through age 19 to 20.
As expected, no matter how frequently they ate, participants gained weight and waist inches over the study period as they went through puberty. But the fewer snacks and meals they ate during the day, the more fat they ended up putting on.
Over the 10 years, those who started out eating more than six times a day climbed 6.5 points on the body mass index (BMI) scale, a measure of weight in relation to height.
But those who ate three times a day or less went up 7.8 points -- which translates to about 3.6 kg (8 lb) gained by the least frequent eaters.
Girls who ate most frequently gained an average of 10.2 cm (4 inches) around their waists by the time they were 19 or 20, compared with nearly 12.7 cm (5 inches) in girls who ate the fewest meals or snacks.
This was after taking into account other measures of health and lifestyle that could affect weight gain, such as how often they exercised and watched television, and how heavy they were to start.
"Maybe if you eat smaller meals or you eat more frequently you're less likely to have a very large meal or be extremely hungry and over-eat at a meal," said Alison Field, who studies children's eating at Children's Hospital, Boston.
But Field, who did not take part in the study, said there may simply be inherent differences in people who eat frequently as opposed to those who eat less often.
She added that the study also didn't take into account what the girls were eating.
"If you're frequently eating but what you're eating is carrots and apples, that's really different than if you're frequently eating candy bars," she said.