How Many Times A Day Should I Eat?
This question is widely debated in the health and fitness world and for many years it has been common to hear that you need to eat breakfast to “kick start” fat burning and that you need to eat 5-6 meals a day to speed up your metabolism. However, is all of this necessarily true?
We are going to summarize the main talking points typically involved in this debate and tell you what the current evidence based advice is for the average person.
Does eating more frequently increase metabolism?
To put it bluntly… No.
This is a myth that comes from a misunderstanding on the thermic effect of food (TEF). Your body “burns” calories when processing the food you have eaten so I guess it might seem intuitive to think that the more often you eat the more calories you are going to burn, right? However this way of thinking doesn’t take into account that the overall TEF is purely related to the total amount of calories that you consume each day. For example, if you eat 2000 calories a day, your body will need to burn the same amount of calories to process this food regardless of how many meals you are eating. Let’s say the thermic effect of food is 10%, so if you eat 500 calories then your body will burn 50 calories from processing it. If you eat 4 meals containing 500 calories then the total amount of calories burned from doing this will be 200 calories, and if you eat 2 large meals containing 1000 calories each then your body is also going to burn the same amount of energy from doing this. We suggest not stressing over needing to eat every 2-3 hours and just do what is most comfortable for you. If you want to increase your metabolism, we suggest that keeping physically active is your best bet.
Will eating little and often regulate my blood sugar levels?
Unless you have a medical condition such as diabetes, the human body actually does a very good job of regulating blood sugar levels itself without your help. Every time you eat, your blood sugar “spikes” before returning to its base level. If you are eating lots of meals during the day, that actually results in more of these “spikes” occurring and if you eat larger meals less frequently then these spikes are likely to be larger but also occur less often. Some people who advocate the need to eat every 2-3 hours argue their point by suggesting that your blood glucose should be kept high throughout the day but the reasoning here is rather flawed because guess what… having constantly elevated blood sugar levels is pretty much what diabetes is! The take home message here is that you can influence the frequency and the temporary elevation of your blood sugar levels but you can’t regulate it; that is what your body already does for you. It is however worth noting that your body is more efficient at regulating your blood sugar levels if you are a healthy person, being overweight and inactive can negatively impact your body’s ability to do this.
What is best for increasing satiety?
We personally believe that this is an individual thing. Instead of just reading what other people and studies have to say, just try a week of eating little and often and a week of eating larger meals but less often and see what you think! There is a much greater relation to what type of food you are eating (more protein vs less protein, more carbohydrates vs less carbohydrates) and satiety compared to variations in meal frequency.
Are there particular times of the day when I should or shouldn’t be eating?
There have been some studies that have associated people who skip breakfast and eat later at night with having a greater possibility of being overweight. However, it is important to note that correlation does not always equal causation. Studies have struggled to prove any physiological explanation for why this trend exists. The common consensus here is the possibility that people who skip breakfast and eat late at night tend to be more likely to display unhealthy eating and lifestyle habits (they are more likely to be inactive and eat more calories than they should). For example, it is quite common for people who overeat to consume most of their calories in the evening but doesn’t necessarily mean that eating in the evening itself is the problem. People who rush in the morning and skip breakfast can end up feeling hungry at work before lunch and end up snacking unhealthily to compensate. This again doesn’t mean that missing breakfast itself is the problem. We suggest that if you get hungry during the morning then you should eat breakfast and if you struggle to sleep when hungry then don’t have your last meal/snack too early!
For athletes who train for sporting performance or higher-level amateur fitness enthusiasts, meal timing can become much more important, especially pre and post workout. This will be discussed in a later article.
There are conflicting reports and opinions about what is the optimal meal frequency. However, one thing is perfectly clear; if you choose to do something that is not compatible with your life and personal preferences you will be less likely to adhere to your diet plan and therefore less likely to reach your weight loss or weight gain objectives in the long run. As mentioned in our meal planning tips article, we strongly suggest that it is best to plan your diet around your life as opposed to the other way round. Whether it is eating 3 times a day or 5 times a day, choose the option you feel most comfortable with and stick to your plan.