How Many Meals A Day Should You Eat (And How Often)?
I used to think that eating several small meals a day was optimal for health. After all, what better way to fuel your metabolic fire than eating every few hours? I also used to believe that in order to ignite your metabolism, I had to eat 10 grams of protein by 10 a.m. That belief was so ingrained in me that if I didn’t eat breakfast by 10 a.m., I would get ‘hangry’ (the combination of angry and hungry).
But for the past year, I’ve hopped on one of the biggest health trends in recent years: intermittent fasting. And after diligently fasting for 14-16 hours in between dinner and my first meal of the day, I’ve gotten much leaner. In fact, my weight has dropped to 158 from 170.
I was shocked at this amount of weight loss. You see, I didn’t set out to lose weight, much less think that losing that much was possible, absent a serious bug or disease (knock on wood).
You see, genetically, I’ve been blessed with a fast metabolism and have always been physically active and relatively lean, never having more than 15% body fat; weight management has never been a challenge for me.
Prior to intermittent fasting, my midsection had a little extra flab. But for me to lose 12 pounds, simply by not having any calories after 7 p.m. or thereabouts, and waiting until 11 a.m. or so the following day to have my first meal of the day. I’m still astounded by the weight loss.
And not only is my physique more svelte, my concentration is sharper and I can focus on work for longer. Previous to my intermittent fasting experiment, when I was eating every few hours, thinking that I was doing my body good, my energy levels weren’t as steady. I was prone to wanting to take mid-day naps. These days, consistently doing intermittent fasting, I hardly ever feel tired.
What’s The Best Meal Frequency For Weight Loss And Wellness?
In fact, not only do I not eat every few hours, on most days of the week, I eat only two meals per day—with no snacks in between. (Breakfast for me is coffee with coconut creamer and a dab of grass-fed butter.)
For me, the choice is clear: eating twice a day, and certainly no more than three times, has me functioning and feeling my best.
But what does the research say about meal frequency? According to a 2015 Harvard University article, the opposite of my own personal experiment is best for weight loss success.
Based on a limited number of research studies, Harvard says, “There does appear to be an inverse association between weight and eating frequency.” In other words, the heavier a person is, the less often they eat. The reason why? When heavy people skip breakfast and have an inadequate lunch, say, a turkey sandwich, they tend to overeat at night, including late-night snack binges.
Harvard adds, “Research suggests that people of normal weight and formerly obese people who have maintained their weight loss eat about four times per day, compared with obese people.”
Not only that, Harvard’s conclusion suggests that eating three balanced meals per day compared with fewer than three meals per day can help control appetite and lead to feelings of fullness.
I didn’t go to an Ivy League school and I don’t have an advanced degree; I’m merely a plebian natural health writer with non-degree nutrition certifications. Certainly the smarty pants at Harvard know better than me, right? Well, I’m not so convinced they do in this case.
Research Backs Going Several Hours In Between Meals
One of the big selling points about intermittent fasting is that during your eating window, you can eat as much and as often as you need to. But I have found that even during my eating window, I do best only eating two very large meals, going about six hours or so in between. (If I do have a snack in between, it’s just a piece of fruit and/or handful of nuts.)
But this runs counter to Harvard’s conclusion from 2015. However, there’s several research studies on intermittent fasting demonstrating that short fasting periods actually stimulate metabolic activity. Moreover, intermittent fasting has also been shown to increase insulin sensitivity, resistance to stress, and increase life span.
Obviously, there are certain health conditions and populations that would preclude eating just twice a day or less. (Eating just one very large meal per day has also become a fairly popular eating regimen). For example, people with diabetes, hypoglycemia or other blood-sugar disorders may need to eat more often to keep blood sugar levels from dipping too low.
Should You Eat As Much As You Want While Intermittent Fasting?
Even though there have been many research studies on intermittent fasting, far more is needed to draw definitive conclusions. There have been promising results showing that fasting for 16 hours has positive effects for weight loss, insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels. But to date, there is a dearth of well-designed random clinical trials involving thousands of human participants.
Thus, the best way to assess whether eating smaller meals throughout the day—even if you’re intermittent fasting—or eating only one or two large meals a day is better for you, is to be a biohacker.
Make careful observations. Start a food journal. Keep meticulous records for a minimum of two weeks. Ideally you’ll track your food intake, energy levels and mood for at least a month. Doing so will reveal the best meal frequency and timing for you. Keep in mind that it’s not only about meal frequency and timing, your energy and moods are profoundly influenced by what you eat. Recording a food diary will help you optimize what to eat, when to eat, and how many meals to eat. (And with smartphone apps, it’s never been easier to track.)
What do you think is the best meal frequency? Leave a comment.