Controlling cholesterol levels may be a case of not only what we eat but how often.
Men and women who eat six or more times a day have about five per cent lower concentrations of cholesterol than less frequent eaters, which could translate into a lower risk of heart disease, the number one killer in many Western countries.
"If you are already eating well and want to have further benefit, at least for cholesterol, dividing what you eat into more frequent meals may have additional benefit,"said Professor Kay-Tee Khaw of the University of Cambridge in eastern England.
"The more frequently the better - four, five or six (meals) spread out over the day so smaller amounts are eaten more frequently," she told Reuters in an interview.
Khaw and her colleagues questioned more than 14,000 people aged between 45 and 75 about how often they ate, including meals, coffee and tea breaks and snacks. They also measured the volunteers' cholesterol levels.
Their research is published in The British Medical Journal.
The people who reported eating more frequently had approximately five per cent lower cholesterol levels than the participants who consistently ate fewer meals and snacks.
Cholesterol can clog the arteries and contribute to coronary heart disease. It comes in two varieties. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol, deposits fat while high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol, carries fat away.
Khaw and her team found lower levels of cholesterol in the frequent eaters regardless of their body mass, physical activity or whether they smoked.
But she added that people who eat more frequently tend to be more physically active than others.
Although the five per cent reduction in cholesterol levels does not sound very great, it could have a large impact on heart disease risk.
"From other studies we know five percent lowering of cholesterol may be associated with a 10 percent reduction in coronary heart disease risk," she added.
Animal and laboratory studies suggest eating large meals after long periods without eating changes how fat is stored and increases peaks of insulin that induce many of the liver enzymes that are responsible for metabolism.
"It suggests that if you eat more frequently you don't have such big insulin peaks and therefore enzymes responsible for the production of cholesterol may work differently and you don't have such high cholesterol levels," Khaw explained.