How Often Should You Eat a Day? Myths & Facts About Meal Frequency
Can you trust your hunger or should you schedule your meals?
You may have heard that eating 6 small meals per day will boost your metabolism and help you lose weight. Or maybe the exact opposite – that fasting is great for weight loss.
There is a lot of confusion about meal frequency in the health and fitness industry.
But don’t worry – there’s one rule to rule them all.
The number one rule of meal frequency
The best number of meals a day for you is whatever it takes to meet your nutritional needs. Here’s what that means…
What you eat – which macronutrients – and how much you eat matters more than how often you eat.
Some people find it easier to eat three times. Others are able to better adjust the amount of food they eat if it is spread out in smaller meals so they never get hungry. That’s why the right number of meals for you is whatever is the easiest to meet your nutritional needs throughout the day. Simple as that.
The fact is:
If you want to lose fat or gain weight the most important thing is to adjust your calorie intake accordingly.
Remember, eating smaller meals won’t speed up your weight loss if the calories stay the same. And here’s why…
Your meal timing and metabolism questions answered
Will eating small meals often speed up your weight loss?
It is a fact that meal digestion increases your metabolic rate. But, it depends on the amount of calories and not how often you eat. Eating 900 calories in three small meals or just one big meal doesn’t make a difference.(1) As long as calories stay the same, eating more often won’t make a significant difference for weight loss, according to research.
Does skipping meals cause “starvation mode” that stops you from losing weight?
When you eat less, your metabolism has less to digest. So, restricting your calories will slow down your metabolic rate, whether you skip meals or not. But – a slower metabolic rate is most likely not the reason why your weight loss stalled. . Actually, your weight loss will naturally slow down once you have less to lose. It doesn’t mean you are in “starvation mode” and have to eat more often.
This common myth causes people to eat more and sabotage their diets. (Exceptions include conditions like anorexia and rare diseases such as marasmus.)
“Starving yourself” with a severe caloric restriction is not advised for health reasons beyond weight management, such as malnutrition that could lead to other serious health issues.
Should you eat right after your workout if you want to gain muscle?
If your goal is to build muscle, there are a couple of scientifically proven tips to increase muscle protein synthesis.(3) Consuming high-quality protein up to 2 hours after your workout can help muscle recovery and gain. For optimal gains, you should consider eating 20-40g of protein (0.25–0.40 g/kg body mass/dose) approximately every 4 hours. If you are not exercising, the timing is not crucial and you should care most about the total protein intake per day to build more muscle.
Still, you might be left wondering – are there any reasons why you should eat more or less often?
Should you eat more or less often?
Consider eating less often if…
- The “smaller meals approach” is complicated for you
- You want to think less about food but still stick to your planned calories
- You can’t lose weight even by restricting calories
- You have digestive problems – a longer break between meals gives your body a chance to digest food completely
Looking for a change? Intermittent fasting can be a great way to lose weight and/or spend less time on food planning.
Is it safe to experiment with intermittent fasting?
In general, yes. But it’s not advised if you are younger than 18, pregnant, diabetic, underweight, or have had an eating disorder.
Consider eating more often (4 or more meals a day) if…
- You want to gain weight but can’t eat so many calories in one meal
- You have a very active job and high calorie demands
- You are an athlete and need specific nutrient timing around your workouts
- You feel “hangry” (hungry + angry) all the time (maybe you should try foods that keep you full longer?)
- There is no magical number of meals a day that will work for everyone. Trust your hunger – if you like to eat smaller meals more frequently, then go for it. If not, feel free to eat less often.
- You don’t have to force yourself to eat on a schedule, but it would be good to create a habit of eating the same number of meals each day. Why? According to research, meal irregularity can have negative effects on your health. Whether it’s 2 meals, 3 meals, 6 meals a day – try to choose a number of meals that you can stick to most days of the week.
- Don’t forget the number one rule: the best number of meals for you depends on what your body needs to meet your goals.