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Why Meal Frequency Matters

Does it matter how often you eat? My experience with clients suggests absolutely yes. That said, however, it’s complicated to find definitive scientific “proof” that any particular eating frequency is “best.” A quick Google Scholar search for “meal frequency, intermittent fasting” results in over 18,000 studies or commentaries (nearly one thousand from 2013 alone). If you want to find commentary supporting the benefits of eating more than three times per day, you’ll find it. If you want to read about the benefits of not eating at all for several hours, you’ll find it. This shows that while we may know a lot about this eating pattern or that, there’s a fair amount we still don’t understand. It also illustrates what I believe is the more salient point: what works best varies from person to person--and can even shift over time in the same person over the course of a weight loss journey.

The Case for Frequent Eating 

Eating frequently (every two to three hours) “stokes” your metabolism, right? Not exactly. A few studies have examined this approach without successfully proving its worth as a metabolism boosting strategy. When calories and meal composition are equal but eaten in three meals per day or divided into three meals plus three snacks, the more frequent eaters did not have better weight loss results, according to one study

Nonetheless, eating frequently can have some advantages. Frequent eating can be helpful for those who are just starting weight loss journeys or who suffer from erratic energy or blood sugar control. The permission to eat every two to three hours mentally helps those who are just building their awareness of hunger and satisfaction but can’t possibly imagine going several hours without food. Regularly scheduled feedings allow people with fragile blood sugar control a relatively easy way to avoid the overwhelming hunger signals associated with low blood sugars. Likewise, for some people “nibbling” throughout the day can be a good strategy to manage portions and avoid binge-eating episodes. 

On the other side of the coin, eating more frequently can work against your health in certain instances, most often when people force themselves to eat based on the clock rather than based on natural hunger, satisfaction, and energy cues. Another big detriment to frequent eating is the kinds of foods themselves that encourage this pattern. Many foods that promote a frequent eating cycle are low nutrient, high-calorie substances. One study’s observations of frequent eaters who followed  Standard American eating patterns (i.e. eating foods that are most convenient and conducive to frequent grazing) found a positive association between snacking and steady weight gain when compared to the outcomes of less-frequent eaters.  The negatives of such frequent eating seemed to be compounded when those study participants also ate higher glycemic foods. 

In other words, when foods drastically increase our blood sugar and need for insulin output even several times throughout the day, it’s a recipe for weight gain. Considering most adults are awake for somewhere between 16-18 hours per day, it’s not unrealistic to assume you may eat up to nine times a day, each time trigging a little bit of fat storage!

If you find yourself needing to eat frequently, it’s okay. Know, however, that it’s in most cases unnecessary for your health and won’t give you faster metabolism. To boot, it may contribute to unwanted weight gain. If you experience more success with more frequent eating at this point in your weight loss journey, plan to eat colorful veggies, protein-rich foods and healthy fats for most of your mini meals. This way your blood sugar, hunger/satisfaction feelings, and energy levels will be easiest to manage.

The Case for Intermittent Fasting

There are a good number of people singing the praises of short-term fasting. Whether it’s a weekly 24-hour fast, a daily 16-hour break from eating (much of it overnight), or an inadvertently skipped lunch, eating less frequently can have some cool benefits. You may be able to lower the total amount of insulin your body pumps through each day, ramp up fat metabolism, improve cognition and mental focus, or even increase growth hormone and testosterone production. That said, regular fasting (particularly done on a daily basis) should be reserved as a more advanced eating strategy.

If you’ve been pretty consistent with eating high quality, nutrient dense, unprocessed foods and can easily make it more than four hours between feedings without turning into a toddler, you may be ready to adopt less frequent eating--or even occasional fasting. An interesting trial of normal weight men and women showed eating just one meal per day (defined as all the day’s calories within a four hour window in the evening) was associated with greater fat loss over eight weeks versus consuming the same food spread over three normal meal times. This greater fat loss from less-frequent eating was even achieved without consciously attempting a caloric deficit. Eating all the day’s food within a smaller window of time turned out to be feasible for already healthy people. It probably wouldn’t play out the same in other populations. 

Those who are overweight, obese, or have insulin resistance patterns (or type 2 diabetes) may not find it immediately easy to adjust to only three meals or less per day until after several weeks or months of consistently eating higher quality foods. Likewise, people under considerable amounts of stress (who’s not?) or who are chronically under-rested will find it difficult to benefit from increasing their time in a fasted state. Our internal regulating systems, which control our hunger, energy, and alertness, only start to operate more smoothly once sleep is consistent, food quality is high, and stress is relatively low or at least well-controlled. These adaptations can take several weeks or even months (and are often not observed in studies lasting less than a month). 

There’s probably a time and place in just about everyone’s program to eat less frequently (because you simply don’t have to eat several times per day), but it only comes along once a person is metabolically ‘flexible’ enough to easily access fat stores to keep energy humming along during the (sometimes) several hours between meals or snacks. Do you think you’re ready to dabble? Get together with a Nutrition Coach to help create an individualized plan for success. 

The Case for Three Meals 

Maybe eating a half-dozen or more times each day just doesn’t fit your busy schedule. Perhaps the thought of making good food decisions more than forty times per week just doesn’t seem possible. That said, going close to a day without any food doesn’t sound like a fun ride either. Is it okay to just stick with three square meals per day? Absolutely. In fact, settling into a three-meals-a-day pattern is certainly achievable for most people and can be a reasonable compromise between the two extremes outlined above.

A less frequent meal pattern (three meals per day versus three meals plus three snacks) seems to actually improve satiety and reduce hunger, as well as enhance blood sugar control in males who are relatively lean and otherwise healthy. After just a few days of eating higher quality foods (rich in fiber, adequate in protein, and flavored with healthy fats), blood sugar control, hunger management, and energy start to smooth out, and appetite signals become mild enough to manage with just three substantial meals.  

I like working toward this strategy with most of my clients in the first month or two of their program for a few reasons. First, it’s much easier to anticipate and plan for three good meals per day rather than feel pressured to perfect five or more separate eating episodes. The result is simply less decision fatigue. Second, it fits in more conveniently with most peoples’ lifestyles to eat about three meals per day. Third, it helps us tune into their hunger and satisfaction cues and gauge their metabolic ‘flexibility’ as they start to realize it’s okay to feel hungry on occasion (i.e. the world isn’t going to end if you can’t eat every two to three hours). Lastly, it helps to facilitate other lifestyle changes that probably need to happen concurrently anyway, such as getting to bed at a reasonable time. If my clients are eating enough to satisfy hunger and energy requirements (calories) spread across three meals per day and they are still hungry for a fourth meal on a regular basis, they either need to eat more at those three meals or go to bed earlier to lower ghrelin (the hunger hormone). Eating more frequently and under-sleeping on a regular basis can both increase this hormone.

Making Sense of It All

It’s very possible that an individual could begin his/her healthier way of eating by managing hunger and blood sugars with frequent, small, balanced meals several times each day, then transition to eating just three meals a day after just a few weeks, and ultimately experiment with occasional fasting within several months. That said, it helps to not guess your way through a process like this. Working with a coach and using available blood or saliva assessments and other tools to track your progress can be immensely valuable and will help you make the right transitions at the optimal times. 

What have you found to be your ideal food frequency? Has it changed over the course of your weight loss journey? Share your insights and experience, and thanks for reading!

Written by Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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