The 'optimal' meal frequency debate continues on and general advice these days can range from one large evening feast to the old tradition of 6+ meals per day.
So which of these are right - how many meals should you be eating per day?
Well, it depends.
Nutrition must be matched to your physiology and current goals.
Of course, for long term success it must also fit your lifestyle and be manageable on a day to day basis.
There are 'success' stories for almost every nutrition protocol/strategy, whether it's the result from eating 2 meals per day or 8.
This indicates that overall daily food intake could be the key factor in someone's outcome, not how many meals they have had.
The results usually come down to the fact that the person has found a nutrition system to suite them and that it helps them adopt a healthy lifestyle as a result.
What this does show us is that some of the time honoured myths can now be firmly put to bed;
1. More frequent meals increase metabolism
When we consume food we get what is known as the 'thermic effect of food'.
This is the amount of energy that is expended by the body during digestion.
When we eat food we get a slight raise in our metabolism, however eating more meals per day does not provide any significant increase to metabolism and therefore fat loss.
It is actually the total amount of daily food consumed that equates to our daily energy expenditure on digestion.
Simply look at the numbers, if you consume 3 meals per day at 1000kcals each or 6 meals at 500kcals each, you get exactly the same daily energy turnover.
2. You must eat breakfast upon waking
Eating upon immediately waking has been suggested to help us with improved fat loss.
This is not the case as previously discussed as it does not kick start the metabolism for the day.
In fact, it has been shown that going periods without food (usually skipping breakfast) can actually increase metabolism over eating.
On top of this we can get additional health benefits such as improved insulin sensitivity, nutrient partitioning, greater fat loss and induce cellular clean up process known as autophagy.
When to eat more frequently?
1. When building more muscle mass and strength
To gain muscle we need to provide the building blocks in order to so; this is high quality food.
This is when it would be best to eat more frequently to ensure maximum muscle protein synthesis.
Research indicates that this can be maximally achieved every 4 hours, so a typical eating schedule would look like 8am, 12pm, 4pm, 8pm, with high quality protein in each meal.
2. When suffering from metabolic damage or food issues
If you are suffering from post 'yo-yo' dieting weight gain or have been extensively using a low calorie diet approach, it would be best to return to a more regular eating pattern with increased food quantities.
This is to restore homeostasis within the body and to balance hormones.
This is also true for those with previous or current issues with food such as general cravings or binge eating cycles.
This is to ensure blood sugar levels are constantly steady and we never reach a point of hypoglycemia.
A typical 4 meals per day approach spaced every 3-4 hours would be ideal with healthy snacks between meals if required.
When to eat less frequently?
1. When focusing on fat loss
Providing you have a good relationship with food, follow a healthy lifestyle and food choices, skipping meals may be beneficial in your quest to lower body fat.
This provides the opportunity to feast on larger meals to provide that feeling of fullness despite the lower overall daily intake of calories.
2. When your lifestyle says so
Some people have extremely active and busy lifestyles, eating every few hours may not be an option, nor do these people particularly want to either.
This doesn't have to hold you back from your goals, the body is well adapted to under eating at periods of intense activity/workload and feasting after.
If you want only 2 meals per day and enjoy this way of eating then there is no problem with doing so, providing your overall nutrient requirement is being met to match your goals.
Match your nutrition to your lifestyle, and not the other way around.
Good healthy food should enhance our life, not hold us back.
The most simple method to decide how many meals you should eat;
- Eat when you are hungry
- Stop when you are satisfied