How Often Should You Eat a Day? Myths & Facts About Meal Frequency

Woman eating lunch and looking at her phone

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.

Three plates with meals

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.

The fact is:

If you want to lose fat or gain weight the most important thing is to adjust your calorie intake accordingly.

Man eating lunch and tracking his calories with an app

Don’t know how many calories you should eat?

The Balance app calculates how many calories you need depending on your goal. Once you have a daily calorie plan you can divide it into as many meals as you prefer.

Exception:

If you are pregnant or have specific health issues (e.g. diabetes) always consult with your physician before making changes to your nutrition.

Remember, eating smaller meals won’t speed up your weight loss if the calories stay the same.

And here’s why…

Meals & metabolism myths

Eating more smaller meals = faster metabolism = more fat loss

 Yes, 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 3 small meals or just one big meal doesn’t make a difference.(1) Also, research review suggests that, when total daily calorie intake is controlled, eating more often won’t make a significant difference for weight loss.

Skipping breakfast is really bad for you

There are a lot of breakfast myths, but no scientific consensus on the importance of eating when you wake up.(2) Therefore, stick to your personal preference and don’t force yourself to eat. Exercising or running on an empty stomach is fine, but it’s advised to keep the intensity low.

Woman eating lunhc

If you skip meals you will enter “starvation mode” and stop 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 – that won’t stop you from losing weight. 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.)

That being said, “starving yourself” with a severe caloric restriction over a long period of time is not advised for reasons beyond weight management, such as malnutrition.

Using a daily calorie plan, such as the one available in the Balance app, helps you lose weight in a healthy way!

Big healthy meal on the table

Still you might be left wondering – what are the real reasons why you should eat more or less often?

Good reasons to 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.

Three oatmeal porridges served on the table with waffles

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?)

Key takeaways

  • 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. 2 meals, 3 meals, 6 meals a day or something else – try to choose a number of meals that you can stick to most days of the week.
  • Don’t forget the rule number one: the best number of meals for you depends on what your body needs to meet your goals.

Want to see results as soon as possible? The fastest way to lose weight or gain muscle is to use a food diary that keeps you on track!

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Hana Medvesek With a background in physical therapy, Hana strongly believes that movement is medicine. She likes to run, lift weights, and try out simple, healthy recipes. View all posts by Hana Medvesek »

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