How Many Meals Should You Eat In A Day?

A question we are frequently asked here at FFF is how many meals should you eat in a day? This is largely due to the fact that there’s a vast range of information out there, most of which is fairly contradictory.

The most common view is that our daily food intake should be split into three equal meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, it is also often suggested by dieticians and nutritionists, that adding in a couple of snacks, should help with appetite control. This is something that fits in with the fairly conventional media idea, which is to eat “five to six times a day”(1).

As it turns out, there is no universal norm when it comes to how many meals you should consume. There are a large number of factors that can influence your decision – a number of which are sociological and cultural (2). 

With that in mind, we’re going to explore a couple of commonly discussed methods, so that you can decide for yourself!

Should you eat 3 square meals per day?

The origin of the idea that eating three meals per day is the superior healthy choice is a combination of cultural heritage and early epidemiological studies (4).

The Book,‘Three Squares’(5), suggested that the Industrial Revolution disrupted work schedules and greatly reduced the amount of time Americans could spend on the midday meal. As a result, it promoted the idea of ‘three squares’ quick, simple, and cold breakfasts and lunches followed by larger, sit-down dinners. This idea is still very popular in the Western world.

Research by Paoli, Tinsley, Bianco and Moro, (2019) has suggested that adopting a regular meal pattern (including breakfast), reduced meal frequency and regular fasting periods may provide physiological benefits such as: 

  1. Reduced inflammation – this is vital as chronic inflammation can lead to a large number of serious health conditions.
  2. Improved circadian rhythmicity – there are a great deal of physical, mental, and behavioural changes that follow a 24-hour cycle. Meal frequency has been linked to synchronising some of these changes. 
  3. Increased autophagy – this refers to the body’s way of getting rid of damaged cells, to be able to regenerate new ones.
  4. Modulation of the gut microbiota – this relates to the way the composition of microorganisms in our gut are regulated and balanced.

Research investigating quick onset reactions by the body (or acute metabolic responses) to differing meal frequencies may also support the benefits of a lower meal frequency, such as 3 square meals per day (1).

However, this ideology has been challenged by research carried out into higher meal frequency.

Should you eat little and often e.g. 6 meals and/or snacks per day?

A frequently discussed alternative to our 3 meals per day norm is to eat ‘little and often’. Back in 2010, it was stated that a high daily eating frequency can be associated with a healthy lifestyle and dietary pattern in both men and women, and a reduced likelihood of general and central obesity in men (6). A pretty bold statement!

Additional recent research seems to provide support for this, as it has been suggested that a higher meal frequency can reduce weight gain risk (1). This is further supported by a large cohort study, which reported that eating more than six meals per day reduces the risk of obesity compared to less than three meals daily (6). Moreover, increasing meal frequency appears to help decrease hunger and improve appetite control (7), which can be beneficial when it comes to fat loss.

However, these ideas have been challenged on a couple of occasions, including a study that seemed to support that frequent snacking increases the risk of weight gain (8). Research has also found a positive relationship between the number of meals and snacks (more than three daily) and increases in BMI (9).

So where does this leave us?

To date, there is no conclusive evidence backing one method, over the other. Research has shown that both have their upsides, but also downsides. 

What are the factors which could influence how many meals you should eat per day?

There are a multitude of factors that could influence how many meals you choose to have in a day. These include:

  • Overall calorie intake – If you have a high-calorie intake, it may not be practical or feasible to consume it across a smaller number of meals. As a result, it will likely make more sense (and be a little easier to digest), to split it across a higher number of meals and/or snacks.
  • Daily schedule – Factors such as working hours and job type can impact your daily schedule, which can then impact the number of meals you choose to have. For example, if you work in a customer-facing role, your breaks may be limited, meaning you may aim to split your intake into 3 sittings, rather than factoring in snacks.
  • Goal – If you have a weight loss goal, for example, consuming a higher number of meals/snacks, may be beneficial, due to the fact that it can help to decrease hunger and help with appetite control.
  • Personal preference – You may prefer to have 2-3 larger meals per day or spread your intake across the course of the day in smaller sittings. It may be influenced by things such as your upbringing/childhood. Alternatively, there may not be any reason for it, you may just love to snack and that’s completely fine! 

Do you have to have the same number of meals each day?

This can be situation-dependent, as some people can benefit greatly from having a continuous structure or routine to meal times. However, for others, this is not practical, due to some of the reasons mentioned above.

At FFF, due to the way our system works, your meal/snack number is set up to be the same each day. However, we do allow for this to be changed as frequently as required so that you can find what works best for you. Moreover, you can add on a calorie buffer to lower the volume of food that we send you in order to factor in some changeable items outside of your plan yet still keep in line with your daily calorie requirements.

As with most aspects of nutrition, it is important to find what works best for you and accept that this may take some trial and error and/or change over time. Focus on your diet quality, rather than starting to overcomplicate things and/or force yourself to stick to something that isn’t quite right for you.

If you would like to discuss a suitable approach for you, book a call with one of our all-knowing nutritionists to discuss further. Have all the information you need but just don’t want to cook? Give one of our plans a go with £50 off your first 5-days with code BLOG50 – Start your trial here.

References

  1. Paoli, A., Tinsley, G., Bianco, A. and Moro, T., 2019. The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting. Nutrients, 11(4), p.719.
  2. De Castro, J., 1997. Socio-cultural determinants of meal size and frequency. British Journal of Nutrition, 77(S1), pp.S39-S55.
  3. Allen, R.W. and Albala, K., 2003. Food in early modern Europe. Greenwood Publishing Group.
  4. Potter, C., Griggs, R., Brunstrom, J. and Rogers, P., 2019. Breaking the fast: Meal patterns and beliefs about healthy eating style are associated with adherence to intermittent fasting diets. Appetite, 133, pp.32-39.
  5. Carroll, A., 2013. Three squares: The invention of the American meal. Basic Books (AZ).
  6. Holmbäck, I., Ericson, U., Gullberg, B. and Wirfält, E., 2010. A high eating frequency is associated with an overall healthy lifestyle in middle-aged men and women and reduced likelihood of general and central obesity in men. British Journal of Nutrition, 104(7), pp.1065-1073.
  7. La Bounty, P., Campbell, B., Wilson, J., Galvan, E., Berardi, J., Kleiner, S., Kreider, R., Stout, J., Ziegenfuss, T., Spano, M., Smith, A. and Antonio, J., 2011. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: meal frequency. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 8(1).
  8. Howarth, N., Huang, T., Roberts, S., Lin, B. and McCrory, M., 2006. Eating patterns and dietary composition in relation to BMI in younger and older adults. International Journal of Obesity, 31(4), pp.675-684.
  9. Kahleova, H., Lloren, J., Mashchak, A., Hill, M. and Fraser, G., 2017. Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2. The Journal of Nutrition, p.jn244749.
Georgia Head
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Published by Georgia Head

In her teenage years, a love of food and rowing led Georgia into this field as she wanted to know how to optimise performance through nutrition. With a BSc in Nutrition and an MSc in Sports and Exercise Nutrition, she has the skill set to help you track towards your goals and maximise your potential.

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