Most of us grow up learning that there are three meals. We eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with perhaps an afternoon snack thrown in. Eating 2-3 times per day is the traditional eating structure for much of world, but there is a scientific literature suggesting that higher meal frequency, i.e., “nibbling” throughout the day, is associated with lower weight than eating infrequent, large meals (a great review of this literature can be found here). But as we’ve discussed before, there’s a difference between what you “should” do for your health, and what actually works best for your body and routine.
So how many meals is best for your health?
The short answer: eating more frequent meals is NOT associated with better weight maintenance or loss (see here and here). However, the myth of high meal frequency for health persists because in our real lives, having a higher meal frequency works better for some people. Read on for a more thorough discussion of how human behavior and physiology play into deciding how many meals you should be consuming each day.
There are some good reasons why eating more frequently might be better for you:
Eating more frequent, smaller meals may result in better blood glucose and cholesterol control.
Studies suggesting that eating more times per day is beneficial cite the positive benefits of frequent meals on blood sugar, serum cholesterol, and blood pressure. Scientists have found that eating smaller meals more frequently can result in smaller glucose and insulin peaks, which can be a very good thing if you’re worried about insulin resistance and diabetes. However, over the course of the day, individuals eating more meals had greater glucose levels circulating overall, suggesting that their body would be more likely over time to become insulin resistance, and reduce fat burning potential. Some other studies have found better blood lipid values, however, when individuals eat more frequent meals.
Eating every 3-4 hours is great if you don’t overcompensate on calories at your frequent meals. However, it is really hard to do that in real life.
The normal glucose/insulin rise after meals lasts approximately 3 hours. You can still sustain adequate blood sugar to fuel your brain and muscles after 3 hours, but go too long without eating, and your blood sugar continues to decrease, until eventually your body desperate for food (i.e., you get really hangry). And when I’m super starved for fuel, I’m that much more likely to eat too quickly and eat too much.
Researchers examining meal frequency and weight loss often provide participants with counseling on consuming a low-calorie diet, and give participants meal replacements (like protein shakes or frozen meals). So these participants are not sticking their hands in a big bag of potato chips every 3 hours. Rather, they are on a strictly controlled, calorie – restricted diet, and just spread out their calories over more frequent meals.
In real life, however, we often do not have a nutritionist or coach providing calorie-controlled meals. Thus, it becomes much more likely that a few of our “small” meals would be higher in calorie than would be recommended. In real life, eating on more occasions gives you more opportunities to over-consume. So if you have problems with portion control, trying to eat small amounts constantly might not work best for you.
On the other hand….
Eating constantly can hamper your ability to detect hunger and satiety signals.
Hunger and satiety signals are tightly controlled by hormones in your brain. If you are on a diet with high meal frequency, you’ll be eating when your body is not all that hungry. Three hours after your last meal, your body’s blood glucose will have returned to normal levels, but you’ll still be absorbing carbohydrates from your last meal, and hunger hormones will not be very high. Once you do start eating, however, you stimulate your body’s digestive mechanisms to prepare for a large meal, and when you only consume a small amount of food, you may find yourself hungry at the end of each meal.
In this process, you are ignoring both hunger and satiety signals multiple times throughout the day, which can wreak havoc with your brain-gut connection. Ignoring these signals over time will make you more likely to overeat or overindulge when you are not tightly regulating your energy intake (for example, at a party, or during a holiday). Researchers have found that individuals consuming 6 meals per day versus 3 meals per day report greater hunger and less satiety.
Now, this scenario does not happen to everyone. Some people feel great eating multiple smaller meals, particularly if they’re very active throughout the day, and could use the quick bursts of energy without the feeling of an overly full belly. But for others, limiting the size of meals too much can result in feeling unsatisfied all day long.
So how many meals is best for you?
If you’re considering switching up your eating schedule, first it’s critical that you evaluate what your current daily meals are. When I begin working with wellness clients, I always have them do a food diary for a few days, so that they (and I) can really see what they are consuming and how often. There is a chance that you are already eating 6 to 8 times equally-sized portions per day. Or that you truly do have three larger meals and a small snack. Or, that you only eat one or two meals per day. Figuring out your baseline will help you determine what tweaks to your current meal patterns would be best for you.
If you want to increase your eating frequency – be aware of your portions. Make sure that you are consuming multiple small meals, not large ones. One way that is easy to do this is to split your current breakfast, lunch, and dinner in half and consume them in two portions spaced by approximately 3 hours.
As always, whenever you make a change to your dietary patterns: check in on your energy levels throughout the day. Have you noticed an improvement? You want to make sure that the changes you are making actually benefit YOU.
The International Society of Sports Medicine recommends that very active individuals have a higher meal frequency. So take your workout routine into account when you are designing your eating schedule.
And if you do have a high meal frequency diet – consider these points to see if it is working best for you:
Warning signs that a high meal frequency is not for you:
- You find yourself constantly thinking about food.
- You end up eating when you’re not hungry, and feeling starving at other times.
- You have trouble controlling how much you’re eating at your smaller meals.
Some signs that a high meal frequency is great for you:
- You feel energized throughout the day.
- You have a pleasant sensation of fullness when you finish your smaller meals, and happily do not feel very full and heavy.
- You find it easier to work your new eating schedule into your current daily routine.
In sum – the science does not promote eating six meals per day over 3 meals, but increasing the number of eating occasions may work well for some constitutions and lifestyles. How many meals or snacks do you eat daily? How does meal frequency integrate into your current routine?