There is so much uncertainty around the healthy way of eating. Not only do you worry about what to eat but also how often you should eat.
After a quick search online, there was a range of recommendations on how often you should eat:
- You must eat every 2 hours!
- Eat three balanced meals and 1 to 3 snacks per day
- Eat small meals every 3 hours
- Never skip breakfast
- Skip breakfast and eat two meals a day
The information is so confusing that it creates unnecessary anxiety around eating. Your physiology is flexible and will adjust to various eating patterns.
Like many people, you probably wonder how often you should eat because you noticed your expanding waistline. As a nutritionist, I give my clients the following recommendations to create an eating schedule that encourages weight loss:
- Have a regular meal schedule that works in your day
- Avoid snacking
- Eat three or fewer times a day
- Try skipping a meal a couple of times a week
Have a regular meal schedule that works in your day
For hundreds of years, most cultures ate three main meals at regular mealtimes. Coincidentally, weight gain wasn’t a problem back then.
There was and still is a wide variety of meal schedules worldwide. In some countries the main meal is lunch, in others it’s dinner. Some eat their dinner around 6 pm, others around 9 pm.
The timing itself is not as crucial as the regularity of meals. It certainly doesn’t have to be rigid: “Dinner is at 6:00 pm and not a minute later!” Instead, find times that work best in your day to have meals and give or take 30 minutes for flexibility.
When you adjust to your schedule, your body will start sending you hunger signals when it’s your regular time to eat. It will also start prepping for digestion by initiating all sorts of secretions around your mealtime. The elimination tends to get more regular when we have consistent mealtimes.
You can start your day early and finish early, or the other way around, start late and finish late. What’s important is to have a reasonably regular eating pattern and a long overnight fast. I would also recommend timing your dinner to be over at least 3 hours before bedtime to reduce the likelihood of heartburn.
Our nation’s BMI and our snack consumption started growing rapidly and simultaneously at the beginning of the 1980s.
At about the same time, we started exploring the connection between the thermic effect of food and the frequency of eating. We assumed that because digestion is a metabolically active process (you burn calories to digest food), you will be burning more calories if you eat more frequently.
And yes, digestion does require energy. We use about 10% of the calories we consume to digest that food, to extract the nutrients that we can then turn into energy. However, the total amount of food consumed determines the energy expended during digestion, not its frequency.
When you eat your 2000 Cal worth of food, you’ll use about 200 calories to digest it. And it doesn’t matter whether you split it into three meals or six meals – you’ll still burn about the same amount of calories. That saying, we don’t burn more calories by eating more frequently.
So why do we still hear the advice to eat 5-6 small meals a day? – One might think that the food industry benefits from this dietary recommendation more than we, the consumers. It sure helps sell snack foods.
Eat three or fewer times a day
Now let’s look at food intake and our body’s metabolic functions.
How often should you eat physiology-wise?
We have two metabolic states, and we alternate between them several times a day. They are called anabolic (fed) and catabolic (fasted) states.
When you wake up in the morning, you are in a catabolic state. You (hopefully) didn’t eat all night, and you were burning resources available in your body. These resources are primarily your fat stores.
You switch into an anabolic (fed) state as soon as you eat. You stop burning the stored fat and start burning the nutrients coming in. The nutrients are not just coming in; they are flooding in – too much to burn right away. So, in addition to burning them, you also start storing them. The most efficient way to pack away nutrients is to convert them into fat. We also keep a little bit in the form of glycogen, but I don’t want to drown you in detail.
Two-three hours after the meal, you start transitioning back to the catabolic (fasted) state and burning those stores that you just made. You’ll be tapping into your fat stores for energy until you eat again.
The longer you fast, the more fat you burn
Let’s say you have an apple as a snack. You eat it about 3 hours after breakfast, right when you transition into the fat-burning state. From the caloric standpoint, one apple is not a lot, but it will ruin your body’s opportunity to do a bit of fat burning before lunch.
If your goal is to lose weight, consider how often you should eat – extend the time between meals past three hours.
It’s not exactly three hours after each meal that you transition into the fasted state. It depends on what you eat, how efficient your digestive system is, and how metabolically healthy you are. On average, you can assume that you start burning fat three hours after meals.
Try skipping a meal a couple of times a week
Eating less frequently will allow your body to hang out in a catabolic (fasted) state longer and burn more fat. That’s precisely what we harness when we do intermittent fasting.
Anthropologists believe that our ancestors only ate once a day for hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. Our physiology adapted to go long periods without food and being able to do work (hunt and gather) on an empty stomach.
And there is no need to go to extremes and follow a caveman diet because there is no proof that it’s healthier than eating three meals a day. At the same time, have confidence that your body has the necessary physiology and biochemistry to manage without food for longer than 3 hours or even 6 hours.
There is a lot of research on intermittent fasting. Study after study shows promising results and benefits to our health. Intermittent fasting improves cardiovascular health, stabilizes blood sugar, protects our aging brain, and reduces cancer risks, to name a few.
There are many intermittent fasting styles. You can extend your overnight fast by skipping breakfast. Many people find it relatively easy to skip breakfast because they are not hungry n the morning. Some people skip breakfast and lunch and eat once a day, in the evening. You can skip lunch and have a long break between breakfast and dinner.
Try it out and see how easy or hard it is to skip a meal. You don’t have to do it every day; once or twice a week might be all you need to lose a pound or two.
How often should you eat – the takeaways.
We used to eat three regular meals for the last ten thousand years and, most likely, one meal a day for hundreds of thousands of years before that. As a result, our physiology evolved by eating three or fewer meals a day.
We fluctuate between two metabolic states throughout the day. When we spend much time in the fed state, we gain weight. And when we spend more time in the fasted state, we lose weight.
If your goal is to lose weight, here are some guidelines on how often you should eat:
- Have a regular meal schedule that works for your day
- Avoid snacking
- Eat three or fewer times a day
- Have a 12-hour or longer overnight fast
- Try skipping a meal as an attempt to extend fasted state a couple of times a week