Calories and macros generally receive the most attention when it comes to strategies for weight loss. However, meal timing can have a huge impact as well. In fact, meal frequency and metabolic rate are closely linked, so it’s important to have a strong understanding of their relationship.
So, how many meals should you eat a day and how often should you eat to lose weight? Discover all the details here!
How Often Should You Eat?
Thanks to bio-individuality, how often one should eat will vary between persons. Appetite, health goals, medical conditions, and more need to be considered.
Generally speaking, humans tend to follow a few typical daily eating patterns.
• Three main meals + one to two snacks
• Three large meals
• Five to six smaller meals
• One or two very large meals
What’s more, any of these eating schedules can achieve a variety of goals when sound knowledge is applied. Yet, some of the above are likely more sustainable, maintainable, and frankly enjoyable.
Keep in mind that other factors such as total caloric intake, macro ratios, sleep schedules, stress management, and exercise will also contribute to whether someone is able to meaningfully lose weight and sustain it.
Here are the factors one should consider when applying meal frequency techniques.
Three Main Meals + One to Two Snacks
This eating pattern works well for a lot of people for a few reasons.
Scientifically speaking, eating a meal or snack every three to five hours helps maintain blood sugar levels. The body requires a steady supply of fuel, including carbohydrates to function optimally. This helps prevent common symptoms of low blood sugar like irritability, headaches, lethargy, and nausea.
This meal frequency is also ideal for maintaining metabolism because it’s often enough to continually generate heat and burn calories but not so close together that digestion is compromised. Recall that it requires fuel to properly secrete digestive juices and enzymes, so the body needs just enough time to replenish these.
In addition, this eating schedule promotes trust within the body. Going too long in between meals can cause the body to store fuel in anticipation of not receiving any energy for a while. Also referred to as the starvation mode or response, the body will upregulate stress hormones like cortisol which often lead to weight gain.
For the above reason, this eating pattern is optimal for those in eating disorder recovery. Interestingly, skipping a meal or snack can trigger eating disorder thoughts and urges, so it’s vital to eat consistently.
Finally, this schedule generally fits into most peoples’ lifestyles. This is important to consider because an eating schedule that is too stressful can also increase cortisol and hinder weight/fat loss goals.
Eating three meals plus a couple of snacks isn’t fancy, thus isn’t promoted with many diets, but it’s certainly effective for a large majority of people. Combined with other healthy lifestyle habits, this eating schedule can promote not only weight loss but longevity and vitality as well.
Three Large Meals
Similar to the above, minus the snacks, this meal pattern tends to work best for those with metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.
Meal frequency and insulin resistance are inextricably linked and this eating pattern allows for additional time in between meals where insulin isn’t being secreted. Over time, this can reduce total insulin output and can make cells more sensitive to insulin, which can ultimately lead to weight loss.
Those following this schedule should aim to eat every 4-6 hours to prevent big blood sugar drops. But because there are fewer opportunities to eat, it’s even more important to optimize caloric intake, macros, the nutrient density of meals, and even exercise timing.
Note that this eating schedule can also benefit those with digestive problems because, once again, it provides the digestive system with enough time to rest. This eating pattern likely isn’t best for those without insulin resistance as it won’t keep metabolism as high as eating slightly more often.
Five to Six Smaller Meals
Though this meal pattern is often touted in the diet industry, it hardly works for everyone. In fact, it can result in an absolute nightmare for those with insulin resistance or other metabolic problems and can even inherently kick people out of ketosis.
Eating five to six or seven small meals per day generally means someone is eating every two to three hours. This requires well-functioning cells and an optimal digestive system including the pancreas and liver.
The main perk of eating smaller meals is it can keep metabolism quite high. For this reason, many bodybuilders and athletes eat this frequently. Likely, their exercise routine is intense enough to maintain high cellular insulin sensitivity.
Eating frequent meals often fares badly for those with metabolic and digestive conditions like diabetes, IBS, and SIBO and those trying to remain in ketosis because it hardly gives the body a break and can increase stress hormones, which then raise blood sugar levels.
Not to mention, it’s much easier for someone to overeat calories and/or macros with more eating opportunities. It can also be more difficult to create balanced meals and snacks because total calories are so stretched.
One or Two Very Large Meals
The least common eating pattern, eating one or two larger meals is generally reserved for those practicing some sort of intermittent fasting.
This is typically the hardest meal frequency to follow and likely not very sustainable. Plus, it rarely easily fits into people’s lifestyles. There are social aspects to eating that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Not enough research reveals the overt benefits of regularly fasting for 23 or more hours a day. It may work for a very short time for those who need to lose a substantial amount of weight (100 or more pounds), but this certainly is not the most efficient way to optimize metabolism.
In reality, metabolism is likely to slow down over time following this meal frequency plan. Digestion creates heat and burns a pretty significant amount of calories and this meal plan doesn’t take advantage of that.
Furthermore, imagine trying to fit in all the nutrition you need into one or two main meals. This could lead to an overburdened digestive system as it has to work very hard to digest and absorb all the nutrients at one time.
All in all, this eating pattern won’t benefit anyone metabolically best, but it can still work well for those who genuinely desire to eat very infrequently throughout the day. Interestingly, eating one very large meal is probably better than eating two moderately big meals per day in terms of metabolism related to insulin and blood sugar regulation.
The Bottom Line
Like most aspects of nutrition and health, meal frequency needs to be individualized to a person based on a variety of factors like goals and medical conditions. There’s no one recommendation that will work for everyone and following neighbor Sharon’s eating plan could very well backfire if not applied correctly.
While eating more frequently generally boosts metabolism, this isn’t necessarily the case for those with metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance. In addition, those with major digestive issues or those who wish to practice ketosis may benefit from eating less frequently.
Nonetheless, most people find success eating three square meals plus one or two snacks a day. The effect of this meal frequency promotes good blood sugar balance and heightens metabolism when combined with eating nutrient-dense foods and optimizing other lifestyle habits.