There is a lot of conflicting advice about optimal meal timing and how often you should eat. Should you eat less often? More often? Mini meals? Or larger meals? Some experts argue that you should eat every two to three hours, while others suggest limiting it to three times per day, but what is actually the best option? The truth is, there is no best option and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As with everything in nutrition, when it comes to how often you should eat it all depends on what works best for you.
How Often Should You Eat?
The confusion about meal frequency was brought on by the theory that eating multiple mini-meals per day can help to “boost” your metabolism and, therefore, support weight loss and weight management. This theory was thought to be true given that the natural process of digestion raises the body’s metabolism slightly, known as the thermic effect of food, and therefore it was believed that eating less food more often would keep your metabolism elevated. By this logic it was also believed that by keeping your metabolism elevated throughout the day you would be able to increase your total energy expenditure, however, the idea that eating smaller meals more frequently increases metabolic rate is largely overstated.
Although it is true that digestion does raise metabolism slightly, the total amount of energy (or calories) burned through digestion is so minimal that it has little to no impact on the total amount of energy burned throughout the day. Instead, it is, in fact, the total amount of food consumed that determines the amount of energy expended during digestion, not its frequency. Evidence shows that, given an equal amount of daily food intake (or calories), the number of meals consumed per day makes no difference in fat loss. So, whether you choose to eat 300 calories six times per day or 600 calories 3 times per day has little to no impact on metabolism and weight loss.
What about snacking?
Can, or should, you eat snacks between meals? The answer to this question is simple; it depends entirely on the snack that you choose and how much you are going to eat. Given that meal frequency matters much less than the total volume of food that you eat, how you decide to break things up is completely up to you. If you opt to snack on junk food, sweets, and high-fat treats it may impact your overall food intake (i.e. increase total calories) which is far more problematic than the fact that you have increased the frequency of your food consumption. On the contrary, if you opt to snack on whole foods that fit into your ideal food intake, there is absolutely no problem with the increased frequency of meals.
Should you skip meals?
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Skipping meals causes weight gain. Skipping meals puts your body in starvation mode. We’ve all heard these lines before, but are they true? In short, no. Just because you skip breakfast or miss lunch does not mean that you will gain 10 pounds and destroy your metabolism. Eating well is all about context, not a general set of rules that work for everyone.
Yes, some observational studies have shown that breakfast skippers are more likely to be obese than people who eat breakfast, but correlation does not equal causation. There are in fact thousands of reasons why this correlation can be made. Perhaps people who skip breakfast tend to eat more processed food? Perhaps people who skip breakfast tend to exercise less? Perhaps people who skip breakfast tend to eat more desserts? Perhaps people who skip breakfast tend to have a family history of obesity? Or perhaps people who skip breakfast just don’t care and this works for their life.
In fact, while some studies show a correlation between weight gain and those that skip meals, other studies show no difference as long as total food volume is controlled. So, although skipping meals is often looked at as a negative, it can be positive if the reason you are skipping meals is that you are listening to your own body and your own hunger cues. It’s important to keep in mind that some days you will be more hungry and other days you will be less hungry. Your body is not a perfect science or a perfect equation with specific intakes you must adhere to. Your body and its needs will vary from day to day so paying attention to these needs are far more important than whether you skip a meal or not.
What and Why You Eat is More Important than When
The fact of the matter is that what you eat and why you eat are much more important than when you eat. The foundation of any good diet comes down to the quality of the food that you eat and has much less to do with when you are eating it. You are much better off eating whole foods six times per day than eating processed food three times a day because food quality will always trump frequency.
Not to mention, why you are choosing to eat these foods is also important. Learning to practice mindful eating (i.e. Am I actually hungry or am I just bored, tired, stressed, or emotionally eating?) is one of the biggest tools that you can add to your healthy eating toolkit. There is nothing wrong with eating if you are hungry, in fact, your body is the best nutrition coach you will ever have which is why learning to listen to it is so important. There is also nothing wrong with eating to celebrate or mourn, but once in a while. If you are constantly eating to suppress or deal with your emotions that is another conversation entirely, but the first step will always be to focus on the quality of the food that you eat and why you are choosing to eat it.
So, How Often Should You Eat?
So, what’s the answer? Should you six times a day? Should you eat three times a day? And should you skip meals? Truthfully, there is no right answer. The right answer is the answer that works best for you and your life. As a practitioner, I encourage people to focus on eating well-balanced meals that keep them full and only include snacks as needed. I encourage people to bring mindfulness to their meals, sit down, chew, and slow down when they eat, and pay attention to emotional triggers that may be causing them to reach for food when they are not truly hungry. Although it may seem quite radical, the best suggestion is simple; listen to your body, eat when you are hungry, stop when you are full, and repeat.