Nutrition is one of the key components of a healthy lifestyle: it reduces the risk of several diseases, decreases high blood pressure, lowers high cholesterol, improves your resistance to illness and your ability to recover from injury, and also contributes to the achievement or maintenance of a healthy body fat percentage. For years, magazines have been selling us meal frequency as a fundamental ingredient in the recipe for successful healthy eating, along with what and how much we consume.
If it is so crucial, then we should know the perfect meal frequency, right? Well, not exactly. I googled “How many times a day should I eat?” and got 768,000,000 results in 0.71 seconds. A health guru recommends three larger meals and two or three snacks, another advocates for intermittent fasting, a third urges to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Trying to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong is just going to give you a headache. So, before you pop that Aspirin in your glass, let’s find out if meal frequency is actually worth so much attention.
The thing is, science tells us it probably isn’t. Take the popular notion that five to six small- or medium-sized meals spread out throughout the day help you feel full, avoid overeating, favour mindful eating, and promote fat loss. Scientific research supposedly shows all these benefits, but in reality the findings are a lot less reliable than what Weight Loss Weekly or your favourite health guru want you to think.
Consistent feelings of fullness and satiety certainly prompt us to eat high quality food in the right amounts for our body and to learn to listen to our physical needs and hunger cues. Eating five or six meals a day, however, isn’t the only way to feel full and satisfied, and there is no substantial evidence that six meals are better than three.
“Downsizing your main meals and throwing in a couple of snacks will give you more energy throughout the day”
As for fat loss, aside from extreme cases, I could argue that you don’t have to worry about it as a “health benefit”. Nevertheless, let’s examine our facts. The “scientific” argument is that, after eating, we burn energy to break the food down into macro and micronutrients. If we eat more often, we burn energy more often, so this should lead to more energy burnt throughout the day compared to having fewer meals. However, the majority of studies don’t actually produce consistent evidence to support this claim. Experts Brad Jon Schoenfeld, Alan Albert Aragon, and James W. Krieger compared the findings of fifteen studies on meal frequency and found that a higher meal frequency seems to promote fat loss due to the outcome of a single study, which showed a significant improvement in fat loss rates. When this one study was removed from their analysis, the difference in terms of energy expenditure was minimal. Provided the total food intake is the same, you will burn less energy more often when eating six meals, or more energy less often when eating three bigger meals. In the end, you burn the same amount of energy.
What’s really beneficial to stay healthy is knowing how much food you need every day and being consistent with your attention to nutrition. When you study or work full-time and you try to force yourself to eat six meals a day, you either get stressed out and “hangry” or you give up on prepping thirty meals for a single working week on a Sunday afternoon and instead turn your six meals into six trips to a store. Stress has a negative effect on your ability to recover from injury, illness, everyday life events, and exercise. On the other hand, takeout is expensive and often far less nutritious than homemade meals. Either way, it hardly sounds like a healthy lifestyle!
On the other hand, if you need a lot of food, eating three huge meals will make you feel stuffed, sluggish, and maybe even nauseous. In that case, downsizing your main meals and throwing in a couple of snacks will give you more energy throughout the day and prevent that dangerous brain fog that clouds your thoughts when you’re at the library or talking to a client; we all know what that’s like. One moment you’re just about to find the perfect quote for your dissertation, and the next you’re slumped over the book, snoring loudly, much to the chagrin of the fellow students around you. In that case, a banana and some nuts, a yogurt, or a protein shake might just be a great solution for you.
I used to buy into the “six-meal ideal”, too. I always got comments on how heavy my backpack was because it was stuffed with fruits, nuts, and all the other snacks I thought I absolutely needed. When I was living in London and working 9am to 6pm during my placement year, I tried to let go of that habit for the sake of my sanity. All that food prep was driving me crazy. What happened was… well, nothing, really, not to my weight or overall health at least. However, I gained a lot of time and my meals became bigger and much more satisfying. Even now that I’m back at uni, I’m still only eating three meals, with an occasional snack thrown in when I feel like it.
For once, even experts agree that “you do you” is your best solution, as long as your choice allows you to stick with quality nutrition in the long-term. So get off your Google search and save yourself a migraine.