This topic has become more and more talked about in health and fitness lately. You’ll hear one side of the story saying that 6 meals per day is the magic number, yet the other side will say that 3-4 meals is just fine… so which is it?! Today i’ll be discussing my stance on the topic!
First things first...
If you’ve been reading my blog posts all along you’ll know that I am a proponent of calories in vs. calories out. Which in short means that if your body consumes less calories than it burns, you’ll lose weight. And if you consume more calories than your body burns, you’ll gain weight. If you consume the same amount of calories as your body burns, you’ll maintain weight.
Your body burns a set amount of calories each day depending on individual factors (known as your basal metabolic rate) and is increased through physical activity. You can increase the amount of calories burned by increasing physical activity.
As long as your body is burning more calories than it is taking in (through food), you will lose weight. Now lets move on...
Proponents of eating 6 small meals per day…
The idea behind this style of eating is that it keeps your metabolism revved up throughout the day and keeps hunger at bay because you don’t go very long between meals (usually 2-3 hours maximum) and it keeps your blood sugar at a fairly constant level.
In theory, this idea sounds like it may work great. However, studies have shown that eating 6 smaller meals per day compared to 3 larger meals made no long term difference in the metabolism of the individuals, and in some cases these individuals ended up eating MORE calories throughout the day because of the amount of meals.
There is still a plus side to this method however. Compared to eating every 4-5 hours, when eating every 2-3 hours you will generally be less hungry, crave less unhealthy foods and eat a well proportioned meal.
The #1 downside to this method, TIME. If you’re going to eat 6 meals per day, you must have the time to do so. Not only the time to eat 6 meals per day, but the time to cook and prepare these 6 meals. If you’re a 40+ hour per week working individual, the chances of this method truly working for you are slim to none.
This is usually still the prefered method of individuals who are trying to GAIN weight, simply because they need so many calories throughout the day (3,000-5,000 calories in some cases) that they can simply not eat that much in only 3 meals, so they must split it up among more meals.
Proponents of eating 3-4 larger meals per day…
The main idea behind this method of eating is that you eat 3 or 4 well proportioned meals every 4ish hours containing a decent amount of calories that will keep you full until your next meal.
The upside of this method is simply that you do not have to eat so many meals per day, which is a relief for many individuals. You don’t need to do as much preparing, and if you have a busy job that doesn’t allow for many breaks, it's perfectly okay that you end up going 4 and sometimes even 5 hours without eating.
The downside to this method is that if you wait too long between meals, you may be starving by the time you eat again, and accidentally overeat (ingest too many calories) or crave sweets and junk food. Its also a possibility that you’re more likely to snack in between. Also there is the possibility of overeating at one or more meals, which can leave you feeling sluggish and tired (food coma).
This is usually the prefered method of most working people with busy schedules, and those who are not trying to gain weight.
In the end…
Meal frequency studies have shown that there is no difference between eating 3-4 larger meals per day or eating 6 smaller meals per day in terms of metabolism and general health. What it all boils down to is the overall calories consumed throughout the day, and the quality of said calories.
You have to do what is best for YOU, and what fits your current lifestyle. Besides that, there is no clear cut “best” way to do it. If you can only manage 3 meals per day because you’re super busy, thats fine! Just make sure each meal contains lean protein, healthy fats, and quality carbohydrates. If you’re someone who has the time to prepare 6 meals for each day and then also the time to eat 6 meals per day, so be it! As long as you are consistent with your daily intake of calories, carbs, fat and protein, nothing else really matters.
Personally, I like to eat 4 meals per day. But the ONLY reason behind me doing that is that it fits my schedule, and I find it easy. I’m usually up for 16 hours throughout the day so I try to eat one meal every 4 hours. It doesn’t always work out like that, but I get as close as possible. If you’re someone who is up 16+ hours per day I wouldn’t recommend only getting 3 meals in because of the amount of time in between. 5+ hours between meals is simply too long. If you can’t eat every 4ish hours, have healthy snacks with you at all times. I have heard people tell me stories of how they go every work day (8+ hours) without getting to eat ONCE! Now that is simply not healthy…
Thats it for this one folks.. If you have any questions or would like to discuss anything further please feel free to reach out to me!
Thanks and until next time, keep it healthy.
Fitness Fusion ACSM CPT