Conventional wisdom says that we should eat three square meals per day. Your dietitian may have told you to eat five to six smaller meals per day. Is there an optimal number of meals people should eat to get the most out of their weight loss diet?
TL;DR: To offer a middle-of-the-road piece of advice: Start with three meals per day and see how it goes. You can always adjust your meal frequency up or down from there.
Conventional wisdom says that we should eat three square meals per day. Your dietitian may have told you to eat five to six smaller meals per day. Recently you have read that intermittent fasting is a great way to boost weight loss; you should only eat once or twice a day. Is there an optimal number of meals people should eat to get the most out of their weight loss diet?
When you type the question “How often should I eat to lose weight?” into Google, you get 172 million results. It is no wonder there is so much confusion over the number of meals we should be eating everyday. And scientific research doesn’t help the matter. There are good studies to prove that all meal time variations are beneficial. So, what are the facts?
A study published in The Journal of Nutrition1 in 2017 concluded that eating just one or two meals per day was beneficial for weight loss. The researchers recommended eating your biggest meal of the day for breakfast and having a smaller meal five to six hours later. No snacking allowed. They did say that although it seemed to be an effective weight loss strategy for the people in their study, it may not work for everyone.
Another study, published in The American Journal of Epidemiology2 in 2003 showed that people who ate more frequent meals throughout the day were better able to reduce their body mass index (BMI). They suggested that skipping meals actually caused weight gain.
The reasons we are given for eating smaller meals more often are usually one of two:
For those of us who like to eat, these messages are ones we like to believe. Unfortunately there is no real evidence to support these statements.
A study looking at the “Effects of Increased Meal Frequency on Fat Oxidation and Perceived Hunger3” concluded that there was no significant difference between the amount of energy the body burns when we eat six small meals per day compared to when we eat two meals per day. In fact the scientists found that the more often we eat, the more likely we are to eat too much.
On the other hand, eating small meals throughout the day can help some people to control how much they eat. If you have a tendency to overeat when you allow yourself to get too hungry, eating three meals with small snacks in between may make it easier for you to stay within your calorie budget.
Insulin resistance is one of the reasons people gain weight and find it difficult to lose weight. Recent research on intermittent fasting has shown that a combination of a calorie restriction and an extended overnight fast improves blood sugar control and therefore improves insulin resistance in obese people 4. And that makes it easier to lose weight.
Whether you eat two meals per day or six meals per day, the goal is to eat within your daily calorie allowance. It doesn’t matter if you eat all of your calories in a single meal or spread them out over six meals.
The information on meal frequency is confusing. Each meal pattern works for some people and not for others. You need to listen to your body. If you feel dizzy and light-headed when you miss a meal, it is probably a good idea for you to eat more often. If you find it easier to control how much you eat when you have a bigger window between meals, two meals a day may be a good option for you.
Are you wondering about what time of day you should eat the bulk of your calories? Does it make a difference? Is it better to eat more of your calories earlier in the day or later? Learn more about it in this post.
You don’t want to mess up your diet and stop losing weight. Or even worse, gain weight. But, if you are eating well is it okay to give yourself a bit of freedom?