By Tina Paymaster, PHASE IV Functional Nutrition & Health Specialist
There are many conflicting studies on what the ideal way to eat is – 6 small meals a day, 3 meals a day, 1 meal a day…
And there are many theories on why one way is better than the next.
The truth is there is no one right answer. There is no conclusive study that shows 3 meals or 6 meals is more beneficial than the other. This is most likely because every person’s physiology is unique.
Looking back to what the “cavemen” or our ancestors did to stay fit is a popular approach to weight loss and maintaining optimal health. Yes, it’s true that our ancestors didn’t eat as frequently as many people do today because food wasn’t as readily available. As a result, fasting, and natural detoxification, was a natural part of daily life, not a seasonal dieting tool. Obesity wasn’t an issue for the hunter-gatherers as they also were very active, often having to search and hunt for their food. In addition, there also wasn’t the abundance of processed foods, meat, and prevalence of chronic stress and mindless eating. However, this doesn’t mean fasting or Paleo-style eating is right for everyone – and keep in mind there are MANY ways to fast.
The reality is, there may be benefits and drawbacks to eating more frequently or only eating three meals a day, and to know which is the right one for you may take some experimenting.
So let’s go over some of the pros and cons to eating 5-6 “mini meals” vs. 3 regular sized meals a day for overall health, weight loss/management and performance.
First off, at PHASE IV, we understand the necessity to transform the metabolism into a fat burning machine. This isn’t just for weight loss. When your body chooses fat as its preferred source of fuel, you will also experience more stable energy, more balanced moods, better focus, better sleep and less cravings.
When we discuss three or six meals, we are talking about the same amount of calories, just a different way of spreading them out across the day.
Some proponents of the “mini-meal” strategy to weight loss claim that giving your body food every 2-3 hours helps to keep your metabolism going and blood sugar balanced so you don’t get hungry and experience cravings which can lead to overeating.
In addition, if you are an endurance athlete or require a larger amount of calories to support your daily activities and sustain your metabolism (an RMR can help determine this), it may be difficult to eat a large amount of food in just three meals.
We already discussed how under-eating can negatively impact your metabolism, so this provides a way to get your daily caloric needs met without causing metabolic issues or digestive distress from eating too much at each meal.
On the flip side, eating more frequently provides more opportunities for mindless eating and indulging in processed, junk food, as many people’s choices for snacks are quick, convenient packaged foods.
In addition, if you are continuously eating without much time in between meals, your body will spend its time continuously burning the food you’re eating instead of burning stored body fat.
Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. This is quick-burning fuel that the body uses immediately. What it doesn’t use is stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles.
When the body burns though its stores of glycogen, it will begin to burn through fat stores. Allowing you body ample time in-between meals can support this process in addition to eating the right balance of carbs, fat and protein. When you train your body to choose fat as its preferred source of fuel, not only can you experience weight loss, but some research has also shown this improves mood, energy, focus and sleep.
The issues with only eating three meals a day can come from not paying attention to your hunger signals. If you’re not consuming the right amount or types of food, or are eating at inappropriate times, this can leave you feeling hungry and may lead to overeating at your next meal and making unhealthy choices.
WHAT TO DO?
As mentioned, there is no conclusive evidence that one way of eating is the absolute right way.
To see what works for you, consider a few things:
- Decide how many meals you will be eating and pre-plan them so you don’t make unhealthy food choices.
- Pay attention to your hunger and energy levels when eating a certain way. This is important information you can use to decide what approach is right for you.
- Consider your daily activity level. As we discussed, if you are more active, you will require more food to sustain your activities and support your metabolism.
- Pay attention to your digestion. If you tend to have slower digestion and get bloated often, eating three meals a day may be better for you as it will give your body the time to digest.
- Choose nutritious foods. Make sure all of your meals are well balanced and include a wide variety of vegetables as well as a healthy source of protein and fat.
- Try to be as consistent with your meal times as possible as this will help regulate your appetite and metabolism…
- But don’t eat too late. Making lunch your main meal of the day and having a light, early dinner is ideal for everyone when it comes to weight loss and overall health.
- Consider getting a Resting Metabolic Rate Test and scheduling a consultation with one of our nutritionists to see what approach will best help you meet your goals.