Five or six meals a day versus three?


What are the advantages of eating five or six smaller meals per day, as opposed to three meals per day? I've heard it helps to lose body fat. Also, are there advantages to eating more of your calories early in the day?

— Grazer

Dear Grazer,

Kudos to you for your appetite for knowledge! In reality, there's no magic number of meals to eat that’s recommended to fuel the body or lose weight. While some believe that eating throughout the day helps maintain their metabolic rate (how many calories someone burns during a certain time period), this isn't supported by research. The research on how many times to eat per day have mixed findings. As a result, there is no one recommendation. Eating three full-sized meals can equal the amount of several smaller meals, if the calories consumed are equal. In terms of the timing of when to eat, some studies have found that eating earlier in the day may contribute to more weight loss, but the research is limited and may not be generalizable. Therefore, if you're considering what the optimal number of times to eat per day is for you, it’s best to weigh the pros and cons of eating more or less frequently, and also consider your food choice as you figure out a meal plan that works for you.

One potential benefit of eating fewer, bigger meals is that it’s been associated with lower blood sugar compared to eating throughout the day. Some research suggests that eating a large, high-calorie breakfast can lower blood sugar levels, while conflicting studies suggest that skipping breakfast may also lead to fewer calories consumed throughout the day. On the flip side, eating more often than three times a day may help someone feel full longer, reducing their risk of overeating or choosing high calorie foods. Having multiple meals also means it’s possible to reach for produce, whole grains, and other nutritious choices more often. But, if an individual reaches for high calorie, non-filling, or processed snacks it can lead to consumption of more fat, sugar, and fewer nutrients.  

On average, most people eat about four times a day. However, personal factors may impact whether eating more than three meals per day is as beneficial for some individuals. People who tend to struggle with controlling their portions may benefit from eating three meals per day to avoid overeating with more frequent meals. On the other hand, people with diabetes, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), irritable bowel syndrome, and acid reflux may find that they have more energy or have a more regulated digestive system when eating more often throughout the day.

As for meal timing, some studies have found that eating earlier in the day helps people lose weight. It's also key to note that the research around meal timing has been conducted on highly specific populations (such as particular religious groups or people in countries with overall later meal times), so it can be hard to generalize these findings further. That being said, if you're interested in losing weight, you'll also want to make sure your meal timing supports your energy needs throughout the day. Ultimately, in order to maintain a balanced diet, you'll want to think about how much you're consuming over the course of the day and what you're consuming. Eating more calories than you burn will lead to weight gain, regardless of the timing. Check out Eating at night = weight gain: Myth or fact in the Go Ask Alice! archives for more information.

If you're looking to change the number of meals you're eating, you can certainly experiment with the number and timing of your meals to see what keeps you satisfied and energized. If you enjoy having several smaller meals, there’s no reason to eat three larger meals each day, as long as you are getting a balanced mix of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean protein. Likewise, if eating three meals a day is working well for you, then keep at it and do what meets your needs! You may also find it helpful to meet with a registered dietitian in order to ask more questions and work on a plan that makes the most sense for your goals and nutritional needs.

Wishing you enjoyment in no matter when or how many meals eaten,

Last updated Sep 21, 2018
Originally published Oct 20, 1995

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