How many meals should you eat per day?
It used to be that a high meal frequency was the gold-standard. Then, intermittent fasting took the world by storm and eating less frequently became popular.
Figuring out how many meals to eat comes down to your individual situation. Every person is different and there may be certain situations that diverge from what is recommended here.
For People Trying To Lose Body Fat & Improve Health
How many meals you should eat will depend on your body composition, preferences, and goals.
If you are a regular person with a day job who is trying to lose body fat or simply maintain your current physique, fewer meals are generally better.
The Drawbacks of Frequent Meals
Frequent eating appears to increase hunger and desire to eat, leading to an overall higher energy intake. That’s why eating every 3 hours is a bad choice for fat loss, but it’s just the ticket when you want to pack on muscle.
High frequency eating also impairs circadian rhythm (your internal body clock), leading to altered levels of hormones involved in hunger and satisfaction. It can also be harmful to metabolic organs such as the liver and pancreas. Both play critical roles in your body’s ability to burn fat and glucose. Frequent eating can also lead to fat deposition in the liver.
Another problem with a higher meal frequency is that people are surprisingly bad at portion control and tend to significantly underestimate the number of calories they are eating. Surveys show that even when people are actively counting calories, they underreport what they eat by an average of 47 percent.
For every eating opportunity, you have a chance of overshooting calorie needs. By reducing your “eating opportunities,” you have fewer chances to overeat calories, which will pay off in better weight management or fat loss (1).
Benefits of Fewer Meals
There are surprising benefits to limiting your meal frequency to three or fewer a day. Fewer meals gives your GI tract a chance to rest, which is important for gut motility. Gut motility occurs once digestion is finished and muscles of the GI tract stretch and contract. This enables food to progress through the intestines and ensure absorption of nutrients.
Fewer meals can also be better for metabolic health. When you eat frequent meals, blood sugar and insulin stay elevated, never allowing the body to shift into fat burning mode (2, 3). This may have the side effect of stimulating hunger any time glucose levels drop, leading to a higher total calorie intake (4).
For the average general population client, aim for three solid meals so that you eat 21 high-quality, healthy meals a week. On training days, add an amino acid supplement pre-workout and a protein shake after training to support recovery.
How many meals you should eat changes if you are a serious athlete. When you are spilling it in training and tapping into a deeper level of metabolic damage, you need a higher dose of basic raw materials from calories, macronutrients, and micronutrients for recovery. Read about meal frequency recommendations for athletes here.