Meal Quantity and Timing

How many meals should I eat a day?  Three?  Four?  Six?  If I don’t eat for six hours, will my metabolism slow down?  Do I need to eat breakfast to get my metabolism started in the morning?

All of these questions have been answered in several different ways, and it can be really exhausting and confusing to not only keep up with it all, but also to make sense of it all.  So today, we’re going to clarify, or demystify (I’ve always loved that term), some of the answers–both true and untrue–surrounding these questions.

First of all–you should eat as many meals a day as works for YOU in YOUR lifestyle and as many as makes you feel satiated and content all day every day…with the disclaimer, in big bold print, that in eating as many meals as you works for you are still falling within a maintenance calorie range for your body.  And this is not just simply logic…

Studies have been conducted to compare the results of people eating a smaller number of meals per day with people eating 5-6 meals per day, but all consuming the same number of calories per day.  The original hypothesis was that if a person ate several smaller meals per day it would cause their metabolism to work at a higher rate throughout the day thus increasing fat loss.  Conversely, it was also presumed that because eating three meals a day can sometimes mean period of 5-6 hours between meals that one’s metabolism would slow down in between the meals causing a slower rate of fat burning, or even more fat storage.  The studies conducted to test these perspectives have all found similar results:  there was no difference found in metabolic rate between the people eating several small meals per day and those eating only one or two meals per day, which means that whatever burning or storing fat is dependent upon several other factors that have nothing to do with meal quantity and timing.

Just a small rant here…the eat-several-small-meals-a-day approach actually kind of bothers me.  Itwas given to us as a society with the reasoning that if one experiences a longer wait time in between meals as opposed to a shorter one, he or she will tend to overeat the amount of calories necessitated for satiety.  And, I get the logic, but I also feel somewhat insulted that all these “experts” handed down this strategy because in essence, they felt we, as a society, couldn’t be trusted to pay attention to our own hunger cues and in between meals and during.  And sure, you don’t want to get hungry and stay hungry for so long that you are ravenous by the time you actually feed yourself–that would probably cause you to eat more than needed.  But, I think that if anything, this whole eat more often mentality probably has a more detrimental effect on our ability to listen to our hunger cues than it does in helping keep our appetite in check.  Where is the sense in using a clock to determine my next meal instead of just listening to my body?

Okay, rant over.

So now that we’ve established that eating smaller meals more often throughout the day will not increase your metabolic rate, let’s also address the flip side of that.  Allowing several hours between meals will not slow down your metabolism.  In fact, it could actually be beneficial to give your stomach and your body some “down time” to rest between meals…

When you eat, your body naturally begins the digestive process and in doing so, other things begin to occur than just what happens inside the GI tract.  As your body breaks down the food and sort of separates out what it can use and what it can’t use, it is also regulating your blood sugar and it will refill any energy storages that are depleted with the energy from the food you eat (this is how overeating can cause weight gain–too much energy from food=overfill of energy storages in our bodies).  In essence, when your body is breaking down the food you eat, it’s in a “storage” mode.  When you eat frequently, say every 2-3 hours, your body will stay in that “storage” mode for a longer overall period of time each day than if you allow for longer periods of time in between meals.  Once your body is done refilling your energy storages and basically figuring out what to do with the food you’ve eaten, it can get into a phase of using that stored energy for fuel.  Therefore, longer time breaks in between meals will allow your body to remain in a “burning” mode for a longer overall period throughout the day.  While totally caloric intake is still a determining factor for fat loss, it is a wise choice to prime your body for fat loss (or energy burning) rather than fat/energy storage as often as you can.

Which brings me to the last point:  you do not need to eat breakfast within an hour (or some arbitrary time) of waking in an effort to start up your metabolism.  Your metabolism is already on; it never shut off or shut down, lol.  So, if you wake up hungry, then eat; if you don’t get hungry until mid-morning, then eat when you’re hungry.  Consider it this way:  breakfast is still the most important meal of the day because you’re breaking the nighttime fast and because it will set into motion how you feel for the remainder of the day.  You still want to ensure that you’re providing your body with nutrients and quality, whole foods so you can function optimally and because I believe that it will help you make better choices throughout the rest of your day.  But, when you eat breakfast is up to you and it should be done at a time your body sends you the signals that it is ready to break that fast.  For one of my go-to breakfast creations, click here.

Quick Recap and Major Takeaways…

  • Your meal quantity and timing should be determined by your body and its needs as the idea that eating smaller meals more frequently is more beneficial for your metabolism than larger meals farther apart has been disproven several times over in various studies.
  • Allowing yourself to recognize hunger signals and use those to determine when to eat rather than the clock can put your body in a state where it is primed for burning fat/energy instead of storing it.
  • Eat breakfast when you feel ready for in the morning but make sure it is one of, if not the, healthiest meal of your day.

Does this have you recalling something you read, heard, or saw related to intermittent fasting?  Are you interested in learning a bit more about it and wondering if it might be for you?  Well, next week I’ll delve into what intermittent fasting is, why some people are supporters, what you may need to consider before trying it out, and approaches to incorporating the strategy into your lifestyle.


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