How often should I eat?

While it is important to be clear on how meal frequency effects your body it is vital to realise that ultimately you are the one that should dictate when, how often and how much you should be eating. Here we are talking about establishing a healthy long term eating practice that fuels your body, mind and soul.

Whether it is 3 times, 4 times or 6 times a day, there is no wrong way to go about it. This may be hard to believe in view of various recommendations but this is in fact a very simple matter.

KEY: figure out what is right for YOUR body, YOUR lifestyle and YOUR fitness goals and create a consistent pattern that suits your day-to-day  activities.

Should I be a eating small meals every three hours?

If the number of times you chose to eat is not as strict as the health gurus would have you believe why pray the recommendation of having 5-6 smaller meals a day? Does this recommendation carry any weight and is it realistic to adopt it to your lifestyle.

There was a period not too long ago when the health media went through a period of “lose weight by eating smaller meals more frequently”.  This isn’t new. Over the last 40 years it has been widely reported in popular media and some scientific literature that you should have 5-6 smaller meals instead of 3 bigger ones. It makes sense not to overload your digestive system by supersizing each time you eat. Faster metabolism, increased post meal thermogenesis are among some of the proposed benefits of eating 4-6 times a day. This advice is still sound but should be viewed in light of recent scientific findings. These suggest that high meal frequency is not necessarily optimum or that the advantages are exclusive to eating frequently.

What is the evidence behind eating often?

Some studies do indeed show that eating 3 or more times is better than eating 1-2 times per day. Benefits include better control of appetite, reduced hunger cues; positive effects on a number of gut peptides; improvements of blood lipids such as LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and insulin; less muscle loss when on calorie restricted diets  (La Bounty 2011).  These improvements however may not be that significant when comparing eating 3 times vs more than three times. I.e. There is a big difference between eating oce or twice VS three times a day but not when comparing 3 times VS 4 or 5.

Eating small meals every three hours may be just the thing for you.

Some people just love to eat all the time. They either graze though the day or eat more frequently on account of their fast metabolism or lifestyle. There are also advantages of eating smaller meals more frequently such as flatter tummy and less discomfort after each meal. Also if your lifestyle is hectic, you work hard and exercise regularly then you want to avoid under-nourishing your body. In this case eating more than 3 times day will give you the energy you need to function at your best. (Side note: do not use a workout as an excuse to fit extra two meals into your day. If your training was nothing but a comfortable jog, a banana after the workout will suffice before your next proper meal.)

Eating 4-6 times a day might not be the right thing for you at all!

Your nutritional intake is very much dependent on your physiology, lifestyle, dietary habits, cultural norms and the immediate environment. For those who naturally prefer 3 meals a day a suggestion to eat more often will be reinforcing the thought of food when the body does not biologically crave it. If  this is you then forcing 6 meals into your day may become unhealthy and result in eating more food than you need.

You mean I won’t lose weight by eating more frequently?

Unfortunately as far as fat loss goes eating more frequently does not necessarily mean getting leaner. It might for you but not for the next person. Eating more frequently (6 times/day) has not been proven to be better for your metabolism or hunger cues compared to eating less frequently (3 times/day). There is simply no conclusive evidence to suggest that there is a golden rule for how often you should eat. Inevitably it will work for some but not for others. We now know that smaller frequent meals do not significantly enhance diet induced thermogenesis (burning calories after eating) or improve your metabolism  (La Bounty 2011). There are numerous other studies that have come to the same conclusion.

Last few years has seen an increase body of research suggesting that the original findings on which the high meal frequency recommendations are based on may be flawed, mainly due to under reporting of calorie intake by the study participants (McCroy et al 2011). When the flaws are taken into account it seems that higher frequency meals in those original studies coincided with an overall higher calorie intake.

Enough already, just tell me what to do!

A typical meal can take anything between 10 and 30 minutes to eat depending on where you are. It is unrealistic for most working individuals to find that time or more often to be in a situation where that is feasible 5-6 times in a day.

Firstly: Commit to 3 meals a day: B,L,D at their “usual” times – this has worked for thousands of years and there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Make sure the meals are nutritionally balanced and you are content after each meal.

Secondly: Learn to anticipate your day ahead. Snacking (Lets call it “Energy Top-up”) should be done when the body demands it i.e. if you know you have a long meeting or period of heightened physical effort coming up – snack an hour or so before. Likewise top-up your energy when you feel hunger coming on BUT do not forget to have a drink of water first as thirst is often mistaken for hunger. Look at snacks as energy top ups not as metabolism boosters.

Important: Snacking should not be picking. Eat your snacks fully and get on with your day.

Good snacks: nuts, berries, vegetables, protein (humus, eggs, nuts etc), yogurts etc.
Bad snacks: Star Mix, Crisps, chocolate raisins, flying saucers…etc

So, eat three square meals a day. If that’s not enough eat some snacks in between to “top-up” your energy.

P.s. Remember that to maintain a lean and healthy physique you must approach your body as a system. Take care of your nutrition, stay on top of your fitness and nurture a positive balance between work, family and down time.

With healthy wishes,

Dmitri Tkatchev

Read next: – Day 4: Sugar

Back to: – 31 Day Fitness Kickstart