There are a lot of myths and misinformation when it comes to how many times a day we should eat, some of this is based on research, some on theory and other times it just based on the experience of one person.
With the increased popularity of intermittent fasting how many meals a day we should eat has been put back into the spotlight. As with any eating strategy ( I don’t like to say “diet” as this implies something that is short term) different things work better for different people, so how do you work out what is the best eating strategy for you?
Before you even worry about whether it is better to eat 3 or 5 meals a day for weight loss or improved health, it is better to focus on the quality of the food that you eat. Once you have changed to a quality “real food diet” 80-90% of the time you can then start to focus on meal frequency, sometimes this will just happen naturally.
In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the standard recommendation from fitness trainers, doctors and groups like Weight Watchers was to eat 5-6 smaller meals a day to improve your metabolism, which will help with weight loss. This is a myth, but it is still popular advice that is given out today, even though research shows that eating 2,000 calories a day from 3 meals will affect weight, health and hunger levels the same as eating 3 meals a day from 5-6 meals …. in fact there is evidence that eating 3 meals a day is the better option.
Another argument for small frequent meals is that it helps blood sugar control and for this reason it is better for people with hypoglycaemia and diabetics, in some cases this maybe true, but often it is the types of food that people are eating that is the biggest influence. If you’re eating a typical higher carb Western Style diet you may think that you “need” to eat 5 times a day as every few hours you get ravenously hungry, once you switch to a real food diet with plenty of good fats you will stop needing to eat so much.
Eating a high carbohydrate diet is like throwing kindling onto a fire, it will burn brightly but quickly die down and you will need to throw more “fuel” on the fire to keep it going, however if you put bigger logs on the fire you will not have to keep adding fuel so regularly …. eating protein rich foods and good fats is like putting logs on the fire.
Eating 3 meals a day can be better for weight loss and health for a number of reasons, often snacks are processed refined carbohydrates, or even “healthy” choices like low fat yogurts and fruits, can be too much sugar for some people. By eating 3 meals a day you can reduce calorie intake by 100-200 calories which can be enough to slowly reduce weight.
Avoiding snacking can also help to regulate the hormones ghrelin and leptin, these hormones help to control hunger and satiety. When these hormones are out of balance you always feel hungry, even when you have had enough to eat, this is known as leptin resistance. Eating 3 meals a day and only eating when you are hungry can help with leptin resistance.
It can take time to adjust to eating 3 meals a day, start with making sure you are eating good quality food with some protein and good fats with each meal, not just carbohydrate based.
It can be hard to make changes to the way you eat, some people need gradual change while other people are all or nothing when it comes to diet changes, you need to do whatever works best for you.
Some tips to help eliminate snacking include never eating when watching TV or while you are in front of a screen, this often leads to mindless eating and overconsumption of foods because you are not aware of the signals from the brain that you have had enough.
Practicing meditation has many benefits and one of them is the awareness of eating mindfully, this not only helps you to enjoy food more but it also reduces the need to over eat. Another advantage of mindful eating is that you usually make better food choices, eating processed foods never taste as good when eaten with full awareness.
If you have digestion issues like bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhoea eating 3 meals a day can give your digestive system a chance to digest and rest, this does not happen when you are eating every few hours.
Mindful eating can also help with digestion, eating in a calm relaxed state, chewing your food carefully and eating slowly will ensure that your food gets properly digested in the stomach and small intestine.
While I think that eating just 3 times a day is better for most people, there are a few groups of people who would benefit from eating more frequently.
Athletes and body builders often need to eat more than 3 meals a day, especially if they are training for 1-2 hours or more, they need to keep up a high calorie intake to maintain body weight and muscle. Athletes who do not get enough calories often end up with adrenal function issues, poor immune and recovery. If you are just exercising 30-60 minutes a day or going for long walks just to keep fit you are probably fine with 3 meals a day.
Kids are often running around and burning through a lot of energy, while they still need quality food they also may need to snack between meals. If you have kids you will often hear them say “I’m hungry”, this maybe because they are just eating too many carbohydrates in the form of biscuits, cereals, breads and other processed foods, and they are constantly needing to “refuel” their fire. Eating some good quality protein and good fats can help stop them always looking for food.
The elderly often need more than 3 meals a day, they often cannot eat much at one meal due to a reduction in stomach acid, and if they are underweight may need to snack more often to maintain calorie intake.
Some people do have fast metabolisms and struggle to maintain weight, they may also benefit from eating more frequently, especially if they have already tried to improve the quality of their food.
3 Meals a Day Suits
5-6 Small Meals a Day Suits
Improving Leptin Resistance
Not Focus on Food All the Time
People with Fast Metabolism
Is it better to eat 3 meals a day or lots of small meals, as usual that depends on what your goals are, this article explains who is best to eat 3 meals a day
Michael is head consultant at Planet Naturopath - Functional Medicine and Nutrition Solutions. As Seen