“How many meals should I eat per day?” is a popular question I’m asked. Is it better to eat just one large meal a day, or are 6 small meals spread throughout the day more ideal? If you’ve ever wondered, let’s chat about it.
In this post I am breaking down the pros and cons of both eating 3-6 meals and snacks a day versus eating just 1-2 bigger meals a day. At the end you’ll find a conclusion, as well as some practical questions to help you determine which approach is most ideal for you.
What Are Your Goals?
First, we have to consider what your goals are, since your goal will dictate the approach you take. Are you wanting to gain weight or muscle, or are you more focused on losing weight (fat)? Are you more focused on balancing blood sugar and improving hormones? Or, are you just wanting to eat in a way that makes you feel confident in how you’re caring for yourself and meeting your needs?
We are all individual and thus following a personalized approach to meal frequency is BEST. Let’s break down each approach to look at some aspects to consider.
3-6 Meals and/or Snacks a Day
The most “common” way of eating is to have 3 meals a day with 1-3 snacks dispersed between meal times. This approach is often suggested because going longer stretches of time without food often leads to feelings of extreme hunger and decreases the ability to regulate intake when around food. Have you ever gone longer than usual without eating, only to finally be around food and swan dive into a whole bag of chips or trail mix, feeling totally out of control?? Yeah…probably could’ve been prevented by eating balanced meals and snacks more frequently.
Pros of Eating More Frequently
Having more frequent meals and snacks (assuming they are balanced between protein, carbs, and fat) can be one of the best tools to help regulate hunger and blood sugar, helping you make better choices at later eating occasions. Eating a balanced meal or snack every 3-4 hours helps regulate blood sugar (operative word being balanced), which is beneficial for a myriad of reasons ranging from improved energy, mood, hormones, disease prevention, cognition, immune function, and more. Truly, balanced blood sugar is the GOAT in terms of your health.
More frequent eating occasions also present more opportunities to give our bodies the nutrients and calories they need to optimally function — this is crucial for women, especially as we’ve been told for years that the answer is restriction, dieting, and cutting out whole food groups. We are living on empty and need to learn to focus on true, deep cellular nourishment.
Cons of Eating More Frequently
However, there are some potential trade-offs to a more frequent eating pattern. Consider the time it takes to plan and prep the foods/meals; more frequent eating occasions can make it feel like more work, sure. Factor in the time it will take to EAT these meals, as well. This isn’t a pass to just not eat because your schedule is so busy, but rather an opportunity to consider how you could possibly restructure your schedule/time to support your health, especially if you know you feel and perform better eating more frequently. You can’t pour out of an empty cup.
This approach incorporates more snacking, so it’s important to consider the foods you are snacking on. If you’re reaching for highly processed “snack foods”, or mindlessly eating things like chips, crackers, or trail mix by the handfuls, you could easily be over-consuming, leading you to believe 3-6 meals/snacks “isn’t good” or “doesn’t work”. You may be more likely to graze throughout the day, unable to distinguish eating times from non-eating times.
There are ways to work around each of these trade-offs! Consider:
- Simplifying snack and meal times. You don’t have to have elaborate meals and snacks every day. Eat the same snacks and lunch all week, then rotate week to week to maintain variety.
- Keep a running list of simple meals and snacks you enjoy that are easy to make.
- Focus on employing slow, mindful eating when possible. Sit down at a table, turn off all screens, and pay attention to the food as best as possible.
- Schedule regular periods in the day
- If you struggle with grazing, get in the habit of asking yourself if you’re actually hungry when you reach for food, or if it’s out of boredom or an unaddressed emotion
- Think along a continuum. You may not be able to perfectly adhere to an “ideal” eating pattern, and that’s okay! Of course be willing and open to embracing change, but also understand that sometimes you just have to do the best with the cards that are dealt you and live in grace.
1-2 Meals a Day
On the other hand we have larger, less frequent meals — eating anywhere from 1 to 2 times a day. Pretty straightforward, you aim to eat enough in 1-2 meals to meet your needs. If you’ve ever asked “how many meals should I eat each day?”, then you’ve likely stumbled across this recommendation. But what are the potential pros and cons of this approach?
Pros of Eating Less Frequently
This approach can be appealing to many because it’s less preparing, planning, and eating. It can help some people feel more “in control” around their eating. This could be because they’re not thinking about food as much, though this might not be the case for some people. Eating fewer times a day can eliminate mindless grazing/snacking, which can add up to be a large amount of daily consumption, especially if it’s on higher calorie snack foods.
Cons of Eating More Frequently
…but of course there are also going to be trade-offs for this way of eating, too. One of the most glaring concerns I have as a dietitian is that it makes it extremely hard to meet all of your nutrient needs (protein, carbs, fat, fiber, vitamins, minerals) in one or two eating occasions. Consuming 2000-2500 calories in one to two meals will be a challenge to accomplish when the focus is nutrient dense foods that are rich in protein, fat, carbs, and micronutrients (not the same as a fast food meal, which does make those calories easier).
Eating one or two large meals a day can also make regulating blood sugar and insulin more challenging. You will also be more likely to experience fatigue, hunger, weakness, and difficulty concentrating throughout the day — not ideal for most of us, and certainly not a fun way to live.
Eating one meal a day may also contribute to the loss of muscle mass overtime, as your body will have to resort to breaking down muscle for fuel during the long fasting window. Going without food for an extended period of time is a stress on the body — it signals to your adrenals to release stress hormones like cortisol which increase blood sugar and break down muscle tissue for energy. This can also have a negative impact on other hormones that can impact energy, mood, metabolism, and fertility…especially when considering the other forms of stress your body faces.
Important to note, especially if your goal is weight loss: even if eating 1-2 times/day is leading to weight loss, that doesn’t necessarily mean it is successful or beneficial for your body as a whole. Weight loss is not always to most accurate indicator of health!
The Best Approach to “How Many Meals Should I Eat Per Day?”
When it comes to looking at research on the topic of meal frequency, you’ll find studies that back up BOTH ways of eating – seemingly contradicting each other. While it’s important to not totally ignore research, we also need to take into consideration that we are dynamic and unique human beings with unique goals, different preferences, and varying relationships with food/eating.
For example, I came across a study that said lower meal frequency led to decreased hunger and increased satiety. I can attest in my own life that is absolutely NOT TRUE. I thrive eating at least 4-5 times a day — I’m less preoccupied around food, less likely to overeat, my blood sugar is better regulated, and I feel like I have better energy and focus. I’ve experimented with eating larger meals more frequently, and it didn’t go well. However, that’s me…you may be different! Just an example that just because a study says one thing, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
While I do not explicitly work with clients on weight loss, it’s important to note that most studies find that as long as calories are equal, the meal frequency doesn’t matter as much when it comes to losing weight. Food for thought.
So, the BEST approach to “how many meals should I eat per day”? The best approach is the one that allows you to listen to and honor YOUR body and your goals. It affords you enjoyment and flexibility around food, and doesn’t add extra stress to your life. I would encourage you to try not to overthink it. If you feel good doing what you’re doing and you’re meeting your health goals, then that is a sign your approach is probably working for you. If you’re not reaching your goals, then feel free to experiment for a few weeks! You could consider playing around with meal frequency, but don’t neglect the quality, quantity, and nutrient density of the foods you’re consuming as well. Further, could there be other lifestyle factors that are contributing? Much to think about, but some suggestions to start with:
- What are my goals that I’m wanting to work towards and achieve?
- How do my current meals and snacks make me feel?
- What small tweaks could I make to what I’m already eating to add more nutrition and move me closer to my goals?
- Why do I think making this change will help?
- Are the meals and snacks I’m eating balanced between protein, carbs, and fat?
- Am I getting enough sleep? (Poor sleep leads to increased hunger)
- What is my relationship to food like?
- Do I care more about how I look or how my body functions?
If this is confusing for you, that’s okay! That’s where working with an RD can help you build the understanding and confidence to care for your body well, that way you no longer have to constantly second guess and ask yourself “how many meals should I eat per day?”. If you’re interested in working together to help you build this confidence, check out my “work with me” page!