How many times per day should I eat? That question might cross the mind of non-fitness minded folks once in a while. But for those of us who have adopted this lifestyle, it’s a pretty common concern. Most of us grew up eating three meals per day- breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That changes based on how our lifestyles change as we get older. Many may continue eating three times per day. Some skip breakfast or are too busy to eat at work and that number drops to two times per day. Others expand on their original three meals and toss in a snack or two throughout the day.
“I’m too busy at work. I just don’t have enough time to eat.”
Once you dive into fitness trends, it just adds to the jumbled confusion about how many times your should eat. Some say it doesn’t matter, it’s strictly calories in vs calories out. Others say the more frequent meals you eat, the better your body composition will be. And then there are studies on intermittent fasting that debate eating all of your calories within a small window, say 8 hours, will create a beneficial response in your body. So who do we listen to? What’s the right answer? We’ll help you decide.
Some of us naturally fall into one of these categories already. Our lives are busy. The best way to stay efficient is to have a process, a regimen. This regimen dictates when we eat, without thinking about it. If we don’t have the time to eat, and we only “eat when we can”. You might get a small breakfast in on your way out the door and then come home to a large dinner because you haven’t eaten all day. Others might adapt to the busy lifestyle by packing a bunch of small snacks and eating frequently throughout the day. They won’t have your typical “large meal” but several smaller meals every couple of hours to keep them going and fueled for their daily endeavors. A lot of people probably still fall right into the three meals per day category, eating breakfast before work, grabbing a bite to eat on their lunch break, and coming home to make dinner.
This is why we do what we do, but which method works best?
The Effects of Meal Frequency
The science suggests that eating more frequent meals throughout the day may lead to a lower body fat percentage and a higher state of fat-free mass (FFM). There are many different factors that go into this, but we’re going to talk about a few of the major reasons why this method has been so successful
Do you ever remember being full and deciding, “I could eat an entire pizza right now.” Probably not.. We make most of our poor eating decisions when we are hungry. And typically, the hungrier we are, the worse our decisions may be. The more we let our appetite get out of control, the higher level of cravings we have. Eating more frequently helps to diminish those cravings. You tend to stay in the middle-ground of feeling like you just ate or you are about to eat, but never really hungry or really full.
Blood Sugar Stabilization
You’ve heard of your blood sugars, but you might not know what it really means. We’ll focus on the fitness side of things and what it means for your body composition to keep it really simple. When your blood sugars are too high, your body tends to store more fat. When your blood sugars are too low, your body tends to burn more muscle because muscle is actually utilized faster as a fuel source than fat is.
What affects the level? When you binge or have an entire bag of candy, your blood sugars spike. This is where we are talking about more fat being stored. But inversely, if you go a long time between meals, your blood sugars drop. And this is where we talk about muscle mass being reduced.
Increased Thermic Effect on Food
What is the thermic effect on food? It’s the amount of calories your body burns by processing the food that you’re eating. To give you an idea, 20-30% of the calories from protein you eat, 5-15% of the calories from carbohydrates, and 0-5% of the calories from fats are actually burned as you digest them. Eating more frequently actually helps to increase your metabolism and bump that number up even more!
The evidence also suggests that more meals throughout the day has a positive effect on anabolism. Ingesting a source of protein every three hours optimizes increases in net protein balance. The three hour intervals maximize protein synthesis. These benefits lead to an increase in lean mass, which also increases your resting metabolic rate (calories your body burns at rest), leading to a decrease in body fat percentage.
Eating smaller, more frequent meals has been shown to have many benefits. It can lead to an increase in lean mass and a decrease in body fat, which creates a lower body fat percentage. It also helps to reduce cravings and create better blood sugar stabilization.
We typically recommend our clients eat between 4-6 meals per day. Not only in the science, but in our experience, this has shown to be the optimal method. That doesn’t mean the other methods don’t work. There are endless ways to get results and the bottom line always comes down to what works best for each individual client. But for most people, a great start would be here.
Live Happy. Live Healthy. Evolve.