How Often Should You Eat?
This might be a question that you ask yourself if you have some kind of weight goal. Meal frequency is an important variable in driving weight loss or weight gain. But how exactly does meal frequency vary depending on your goals?
There are a lot of ways to answer this question, but the extent of this blog will cover the basics! Hopefully you’ll take away some practical applications for your nutrition.
1. 3-5 Meals/Day
This range of meal frequency tends to be most effective for most people. It falls within the conventional “three meals a day” framework with room for a couple of extra meals or snacks. Straying upward or downward of this range is not a sustainable endeavor for the majority of people.
Staying within this range also tends to produce appropriate portion sizes with an adequate amount of calories and protein. In some of the recent scientific literature, more frequent consumption of protein has shown to be more effective for muscle protein synthesis. So instead of getting your daily 100 g of protein in two meals containing 50 g of protein, spreading that out into three or more meals might work better for you.
With any dietary plan, fullness is an important thing to consider. Splitting up your daily calories into 3 to 5 meals strikes a balance between meal size and feeling full.
2. Daily Calories
Now that we’ve talked about the general principles of meal frequency, how is that affected by daily calories?
Overall, those in a calorie surplus will benefit from more frequent meals while those in a calorie deficit will benefit from less frequent meals. When you have more calories to work with, you are able to distribute them into more meals of an appropriate size and macronutrient content.
This is less often the case in a calorie deficit. In a calorie deficit you have fewer calories to work with so distributing them into fewer meals might be beneficial.
While these principles are guard rails that keep your diet on the road, there are exceptions.
For example, let’s say that you’re only eating one or two meals per day and you’re trying to lose weight.
This approach is known as intermittent fasting. After you wake up in the morning, you have nothing to eat until the early or mid afternoon. This can be a good strategy as you have less chances to overeat during the day.
But this strategy will backfire for some.
Because you haven’t eaten anything all day before your first meal, a lot of hunger signals have built up. Abstinence from food until one big meal might lead to overeating, especially if your food sources are high calorie and easy to eat in excess.
On the other side of the spectrum, if you’re trying to put on weight, eating five meals a day might be too much for you. If you’re the type of person who isn’t frequently hungry during the day, decreasing the amount of times you eat throughout your day might be more sustainable. Your meals will probably need to increase in calories, but certain food choices can make that easier.
There is a lot of variability in personal preference when it comes to meal frequency. You can refer to these guidelines to help get you on track, but feel free to make changes as you need!
3. Losing or Gaining Weight
Whether your goal is losing weight or gaining weight will largely impact the best meal frequency for you.
Let’s say that in order to maintain your body weight, you need to consume 1700 calories. A good calorie deficit or surplus is about 500 calories below or above this number. So if you were trying to lose weight, your daily caloric intake would be 1200 calories. On the other hand, if you were trying to gain weight, your daily caloric intake would be 2200 calories.
As mentioned earlier, more calories usually means more meals. So if you look up at the image above, you’ll see that the 1200 calorie diet only contains three meals.
Meal number one contains the least amount of calories because many people aren’t as hungry in the morning. When meal two comes around, calories increase in an effort to prepare you for your workout later in the day. As you end the day with meal three, the calories drop back down.
The pattern of meal size will look fairly similar with the 2200 calorie diet. However in this case, the meals will be slightly larger.
Meal one is relatively the smallest with an increase in calories as meals two and three lead up to a training session. The last meal decreases in calories as your energy needs will not be as big before bed.
Hopefully these practical examples give you an idea of how to approach meal frequency as far your goals are concerned. Give it a shot and see how it goes!