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How Many Times a Day Should You Eat?

How Many Times a Day Should You Eat?

"Eat three square meals a day for optimum health." It's a phrase that's been repeated so many times over the last 100 years that the majority of Americans accept it as a proven fact. We've built our work and home lives around eating breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everyone does it, so it must be the best thing for us. Case closed.

If only those pesky scientists had left things alone. Researchers at the University of Munich Medical Center in Germany looked at studies with nearly 14,000 children and adolescents. What they found was that there was a "significant reduction of obesity risk with increasing number of meals, which persisted after adjustment for confounders..."

(The paper was released in February 2010 and called, "Meal patterns and frequencies: do they affect body weight in children and adolescents?")

After looking at all the evidence, they said "...it appears prudent to promote a regular meal pattern with 5 meals per day..." Now many of you may be thinking, how can eating MORE FREQUENTLY lead to LOWER WEIGHT? It seems to defy logic, so let me give you a little background.

The people who eat five times a day aren't sitting down to a four-course dinner every time. Each meal consists of 300-500 calories. If you eat three meals of 500 calories and two snacks of 300 calories each, that's a total of 2,100 calories total. That's right in line with the United States Department of Agriculture's recommendation that the average American should eat between 2,000 and 2,400 calories a day.

Children and adolescents, who ate five meals daily of 300-500 calories each, were less likely to have weight problems. In 2009, Kings College London was able to measure the precise benefit of each additional meal. Children who ate three or fewer meals daily had a 5% chance of being obese. Make them eat four meals daily and the odds dropped to a 3% chance of being obese. Those who ate five or more meals a day had only a 2% chance of being obese.

To understand why more meals are better, consider how our bodies use energy. All-day long our bodies are machines constantly working to keep us alive. The food that's in your stomach is the first source your body turns to for energy. The problem is what happens when your stomach is empty.

A typical meal takes 2 to 4 hours to digest. If it's been LONGER than 4 hours, you still need energy but there's no food left in your stomach to draw from. So your body turns to muscle, and here's why.

A pound of muscle burns about three times as many calories per day as a pound of fat. If you were living before modern conveniences, the last thing you would want is a bunch of muscle, burning up calories and making you hungry. Who knows when you would find your next meal?

So your body tries to get rid of any muscle by burning it up for energy first. You shed muscle at every opportunity and hang onto the fat. In the past, having a nice layer of fat was important to keep you warm and help you avoid starving to death during the winter. Today all that fat simply leads to disease and an early death.

It turns out, even when you consume the exact same number of calories daily; people who eat more frequently are better off.

In one revealing study, boxers were divided into two groups. Both got exactly the same number and type of calories, but the first group ate twice a day and the second ate six times daily. At the end of the study, there was no difference in body WEIGHT, since they ate the same number of calories. However, the group that ate just twice a day had a "significantly greater decrease in lean body mass." The people who eat less frequently will lose muscle and hold onto fat.

The Metabolic Reason Breakfast is Beneficial.

When you wake up, your internal clock increases insulin sensitivity and decreases the sleep hormone melatonin. That makes it easier to digest foods, especially carbohydrates. In the evening, the process reverses itself, making it harder to digest foods. Eating breakfast helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels and gives you the energy to start your day.

So eating more, but smaller meals throughout the day is right for everyone then?

Well, NO. That's the tricky thing about nutrition. What works for one person, does not automatically work for everyone. Additional research has found that eating only a couple hundred calories at a time, may not be enough to quench the feeling of hunger. The heavier a person is when they start a diet program, the more likely they're going to feel hungry just eating small meals. In those cases, three regular meals (with their higher calories in each serving) will at least temporarily help someone feel full.

Finally, some people may only be able to start losing weight if they fast, or skip meals entirely. The temptation to keep eating once started, is so strong that only by taking food completely away (for limited periods) can weight-loss begin. You can learn more about fasting here.

Ultimately you need to choose a program that works for you.

People who are already lean or at a desirable weight, may want to consider eating more meals combined with a strength training program to build more muscle.

Individuals who are heavier, 30 or more pounds overweight, might consider restricting their meals to only three a day.

For those who have failed at other approaches, you should talk to your doctor and see what may be appropriate for you.

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.

Updated 4/21/2018
Updated 11/29/2021