Healthy Eating

How Many Meals Should You Really Eat Per Day?

Once again, there’s really no one-size-fits-all.

By: Bianca Peyvan, MS, RDN

Between intermittent fasting lifestyles, one-meal-a-day diets, and an emphasis on breakfast as the most important meal, it’s hard to know how many meals per day is truly best!  Does the common rule of thumb — to eat three meals a day — still apply? With so many new approaches to health and wellness, you may even wonder what actually counts as a meal. While there is no clear-cut answer, evaluating your health goals and getting in touch with how your body responds to different approaches will help determine the optimal number of meals for YOU.

Should You Eat Three Meals Per Day?

Eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner is the traditional approach to daily meals. This is largely based on factors such as work schedules or traditions, and for many, this has become an eating pattern based on habit. There can be some health benefits to this pattern, including blood sugar control, feeling satiated throughout the day, and creating a routine that makes it easier to plan your day. However, eating three meals a day doesn’t work for everyone. 

Should I Eat Smaller, More Frequent Meals?

Smaller, Frequent Meals and Weight Loss

Despite common weight loss myths, eating smaller, more frequent meals will not necessarily help you achieve your goals. 

A team of nutrition researchers shared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition editorial noted that regardless of your eating pattern, weight loss is based on total energy (or calories) consumed more so than the quantity of meals in a given day. At the end of the day, that means there is no difference if you eat three or six meals if you end up consuming the same amount of calories. 

And, we now know there is so much more to weight loss than diet or calories alone! Stress levels, sleep, hydration, and daily lifestyle factors play an *equally* important role in your weight loss journey. So, don’t get lost in the restrictive mindset rabbit hole!

However, if your goal is to limit calories, one approach could be to eat more frequently but vary the “size” of your meals. For example, you could have two “meals” that are higher in calories with a few snacks throughout the day. 

The Benefits of Balanced Blood Sugar

One argument for eating smaller, more frequent meals is that this can be beneficial for controlling your blood sugar. While more evidence is needed, there are studies that do indicate eating your largest meal in the morning or early in the day lowers average daily blood sugar levels and helps you burn up more carbohydrates.   

The best approach is to listen to your body and hunger cues. If you’re someone who gets hungry in between meals, pre-plan some high fiber, low-calorie snacks to tide you over. 

What About Intermittent Fasting?

So what about skipping meals or intermittent fasting? We have heard that skipping meals could lead to overeating, yet intermittent fasting has become a popular method many have turned to for weight loss. Ultimately, fasting can be an effective way to reduce your overall calories, which is helpful for weight loss. For example, when you commit to eating or not eating in a specific window of time, you limit snacks and miscellaneous meals that are often mindlessly consumed. 

Can Intermittent Fasting Help Digestion?

Some Intermittent Fasting enthusiasts argue that eating multiple times throughout the day stimulates digestion which expends a lot of energy and takes the attention away from healing and repairing the body. Imagine every time you eat or snack — your body goes to work with digestion and nutrient processing. Digestion can make many people feel tired and intermittent fasting can be a great way to stay more energized in the morning. 

The easiest way to get started with intermittent fasting is to delay or abstain from breakfast or have an early dinner to increase fasting times. 

RELATED: Expert Hacks on The Best Way to Get Started With Intermittent Fasting

How Many Meals Per Day Depends on What Works Best For You 

Now that you know the pros and cons of different eating styles, it’s about tuning into your body and finding what works best for YOU! Listen to your body and take note of how satiated and energized you feel when trying out different meal patterns.

Challenge yourself by following hunger cues versus social cues. Let your health goals, whether having more energy or gaining or losing weight, guide you in trying different techniques. 

Consider if you are meeting your health goals. If you’re satisfied with your health, keep up what you’re doing! If not, consider not only the quantity of meals but the quality and timing of your meals to determine how to adjust your meal plan to one that works best for you.

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