How many meals should you eat a day? Some say it depends on whether you are trying to lose weight, lower your blood sugar, or manage a chronic illness.
But determining the right number of meals to consume each day may not be as simple as some health nuts make it out to be.
Here’s some guidance for understanding how many meals a day are best for you.
How Many Meals Should You Eat a Day?
The question, “how many meals should you eat a day,” has received responses from various health “experts”. Some swear that 6 small meals are better for maintaining low blood sugar.
Others attest to the idea that a big breakfast and three hearty meals a day is good for kicking your metabolism into high gear. Thus, helping you shed some pounds.
However, the simple answer is: there may not be one right way.
Let’s take a look at some of the science behind why this is.
Breakfast is Best… or Is It?
You’ve heard it your whole life, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
But is it really? And if so, should it be a large breakfast spread, or is a simple protein drink sufficient?
Many weight loss seekers are counseled that their metabolism needs that breakfast-boost to get up and running. But, the relationship between weight-loss and breakfast may be more about your mindset than the meal itself.
Studies have yet to indicate whether eating a large breakfast actually increases your metabolism, causing you to lose more weight. However, one government study shows that breakfast eaters are less likely to be obese.
This could be because of the health-conscious nature of those who eat early in the morning. Not always, but often, early risers exhibit other healthy habits.
Individuals who skip breakfast may be more apt to choose less healthy options later in the day. This could be out of hunger or lack of understanding.
The study indicated that while there was a correlation between obese individuals and those who did not eat in the morning, not having breakfast wasn’t necessarily the cause of their obesity.
Still, there is further evidence that blood sugar levels are more stable in the mornings. Thus, eating a large breakfast can help maintain steady blood sugar levels throughout the rest of the day.
The short answer: however many meals you end up eating a day, a healthy breakfast should be one of them.
The Downside of More Frequent Meals
One common idea promoted by health “gurus” is that eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day will help balance your blood sugar levels. Yes…and no.
Eating a large meal will inevitably cause a spike in your blood sugar levels. However, science has not shown that this means your blood sugar will remain higher throughout the day than if you were to break your meals up and eat more often.
In fact, spreading your eating out through the day can get you in the habit of needing to constantly snack. Your body is never able to be fully satiated. This means your brain isn’t receiving the signal from your stomach that you’re full.
Those small meals aren’t getting the message to your brain that it can stop eating. On the contrary, you feel you must keep “grazing” throughout the day to get the calories and nutrients your body needs.
Unfortunately, this can lead to over-eating.
You may be tricking yourself into thinking, “oh I only had 5 carrot sticks and a string cheese an hour ago, I can afford to eat that donut or bag of chips.’
Herein lies the issue. This constant eating actually means your overall blood sugar levels are higher during the day. Higher than if you were to eat three square meals and let your stomach tell your brain you’ve had enough.
Of course, with all health-related issues, there are variances. The best thing is to check with your doctor or healthcare provider. Different medical issues or situations may be best treated with smaller meals.
It all depends on the individual.
But for a general rule of thumb, avoiding too much “snacking” and especially late-night calorie-intake is always a healthier way to go.
3 Versus 6
Right now you’re probably thinking we mean, 3 meals versus 6. It’s an issue that is commonly debated.
But we are going to throw a wrench in that right now and say, the healthier choice may actually be down to a matter of time instead of quantity.
How often you eat during a day may not be as important to your health as how much you eat and what time you do.
When you consume the majority of your calories during the earlier hours of the day, your body has more time to burn those calories before bed. The food you eat for breakfast becomes the energy you use to get through your entire day.
Individuals who skip breakfast and eat massive dinners, or snack late into the night, may have a harder time controlling their blood sugar levels and weight. Their bodies simply don’t have time to burn the same number of calories late at night when they’re winding down for bed.
This is also important when it comes to sugar consumption. While sugar intake should be limited, if you do choose to snack on something sweet, eating it in the morning may have a less negative impact on your blood sugar levels than grabbing a midnight ice cream.
Final Tips on Meal Frequency
So, how many meals should you eat a day? The answer is personal to everyone. Your health, routine, and lifestyle will affect the decision. Let common sense, your doctor’s advice, and of course, your own body’s signals guide you.
When you’re making efforts to eat healthy, exercise, and get enough rest, it may not matter so much whether you eat 6, 400 calorie meals or 3, 800 calorie meals.
For more help with weight-related questions see our article on overcoming frustrating weight-loss plateaus.