The study found that a hypercaloric diet with frequent meals increases intrahepatic triglyceride content and fat around the waist, but increasing meal size did not.
Studies have linked obesity to the accumulation of abdominal fat and fat in the liver, making non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) one of the most prevalent diseases of the liver.
"American children consume up to 27 per cent of calories from high-fat and high-sugar snacks," said lead author Dr Mireille Serlie with the Academic Medical Centre Amsterdam in The Netherlands.
"Our study examines if high meal frequency, with snacking, compared to large meal consumption contributes to increased intrahepatic and abdominal fat," Serlie said.
For the study, 36 lean men were randomised to a hypercaloric diet or a eucaloric control diet (balanced diet) for six weeks.
Researchers measured IHTG and abdominal fat using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and insulin sensitivity before and after the diet.
Those subjects on the hypercaloric diet ate 3 main meals along with additional calories from high fat and/or high sugar drinks, with or in between meals, to increase meal size or meal frequency.
Results show that high calorie diets increased BMI. Eating more frequent meals significantly increased IHTG, while larger sized meals did not.
Researchers found that belly fat increased in the high fat/high sugar frequency group and in the high sugar-frequency group. A decrease in liver insulin sensitivity was found in the high fat/high sugar-frequency group.
"Our study provides the first evidence that eating more often, rather than consuming large meals, contributes to fatty liver independent of body weight gain," said Serlie.
"These findings suggest that by cutting down on snacking and encouraging three balanced meals each day over the long term may reduce the prevalence of NAFLD," Serlie added.