Nutrition / Food

Meal Frequency: How Many Times per Day Should I Eat?

Three large meals or six smaller ones? Find out how meal frequency impacts metabolism.

There’s an ongoing debate in the wellness world surrounding meal frequency. If you’ve heard you should shun your standard three daily meals a day for six smaller ones instead, you know what we’re talking about.

While how often you eat may affect your metabolism, other factors, such as what you eat and your total caloric intake are more important in determining your daily diet.

To set things straight, we talked to experts about meal frequency and big meals versus small snacks.

Meal Frequency and Metabolism

JJ Coutts, Founder of Outer Strength Fitness, and Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach explains, when you eat, “your body must work to digest and break down the food. This means you’ll burn a few more calories than if you weren’t eating. This is called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).”

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This is where the theory that increasing meal frequency burns more calories originates from. Because the act of eating itself burns calories, people believe that eating means you automatically use more energy, hence a metabolism boost. In reality though,

“Your body doesn’t really care how many meals it has if your calories and types of foods are the same,” says Coutts. “If you’re looking to lose weight, then utilizing your TEF can be a great aid, but it doesn’t matter for general healthy eating habits.”

Benefits of Small Meals

There are still benefits to eating smaller meals throughout the day, though. As Coutts points out, “People who would benefit from increasing their meal frequency are people that require high amounts of energy as a part of their daily lifestyle, e.g. a teacher, builder, or personal trainer.”

The reason being is that “some people may get hungry between meals that are spaced out over a longer period of time. [In this case], they can eat more frequently which will fill them up,” explains Coutts. “It’s also a great way to top up your energy levels throughout the day.”

This also helps eliminate blood sugar crashes that often come after we consume a large meal. Smaller, more frequent meals help stabilize blood sugar and can ward off the dreaded 3 p.m. afternoon slump. You may also experience less bloating and digestion issues because your body isn’t working so hard to process large meals.

Martina LaRue, NASM certified CPT and FNS, agrees. She explains that grazing and eating smaller meals “can help prevent binging and overeating at the end of the day.”

Regularly eating means that you will also limit any hunger pangs or cravings that can cause you to overeat, she adds. Smaller meals allow you to forget those long periods of time without food so you’ll feel more satisfied.

That said, portion size is key here. If your small meals turn into medium-sized or even large-sized meals, you may trick yourself into overeating and work against your progress.

Benefits of Large Meals

Eating less frequently but with larger meals may be the better option for some. “Eating three large meals is just as good [as eating small meals] as long as you don’t overeat and get a good balance of protein, carbs, and fat with each meal,” says LaRue.

By making sure that your meal covers all the important macronutrients, you can stay satiated for longer so that you don’t end up snacking in between. “Sometimes it is not feasible for a person to stop and eat every two to three hours,” says LaRue. You may also find it hard to fit healthy eating into busy days, as well. By decreasing your meal frequency, you are able to stick to your regular meals without disrupting your lifestyle or routine.

So, are big meals or small meals better for me?

At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong answer. The eating pattern that you choose to follow depends on your lifestyle. “It’s up to the individual how they want to consume meals,” explains LaRue. “As long as [you] don’t consume more calories than needed, you should be good to meet your own goals.”

Coutts also recommends asking yourself, “‘How is that working for me?’ If whatever you are doing is working, then stick with it. If it’s not working, simply make some small changes in how you approach your nutrition.”

Along with healthy eating, it’s important to have a healthy workout regimen as well. Aaptiv’s audio fitness app can help you with that!

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