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

The common rule of thumb we all grew up hearing was to eat three meals a day. With so many new approaches to health and wellness, this may leave you wondering how many times you should be eating and 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?

If weight loss is a goal, 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 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. 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. 

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. 

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 

At the end of the day, listen to your body and take note of how satiated and energized you feel throughout the day 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. 

Tune in with yourself and notice if you overeat when you consume smaller or less frequent meals. Do you crave snacks or sweets that you normally wouldn’t? These can all be telltale signs that you are not eating enough. Or it could simply be your body adjusting to your new way of eating. 

If you’re aiming to gain weight or build muscle, you may find it easier to consume more calories by eating more frequently. And if you are aiming to lose weight, eating two meals versus three can be a significant reduction in calories from what your body is accustomed to.

Consider if you are meeting your health goals, whether that’s building muscle, losing weight, or simply feeling more energetic. 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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