Optimal Meal Frequency – How Often Should I Eat?
Once upon a time, when things were simpler, people ate their meals at a more or less fixed time. They would get up in the morning and have their first meal, the aptly named ‘breakfast’. This would be followed by a mid-day meal post noon and finally a meal before getting ready for bedtime with perhaps tea or supper somewhere in the middle.
In today’s day however, people have access to way too much information thanks largely to the internet. Current life-hacking trends tell us that there are ways to optimize and improve everything we do, including sleeping and eating.
So if you’ve ever wondered if there is a way to optimize how many times you eat in a day and if meal frequency has any significant effects on health by itself, join us as we try to figure out if that may be the case.
Traditional eating habits
We won’t go too far back historically, but the idea of ‘3 meals a day’ may not have been as old and commonplace as we tend to think sometimes. In times before electricity, people ate their last meal before dark as it was hard to cool, clean and store without daylight. When electricity was first available, it was still quite exclusive and expensive and so eating after sunset became a status symbol of sorts. This also had to do with the fact that those of the working and labour classes had far less freedom in the hours they worked and as such had very specific working, resting and eating zones. It was basically waking up at the crack of dawn, 1 or 2 proper meals during the day and going down to sleep as the sun went down.
Eventually, the later one ate came to be seen as a mark of high social and economic status. Post the industrial revolution the standard of living improved for most strata of society and the wider window for staying up and eating likely gave rise to 3 meals becoming the standard.
Let’s answer some of the most frequently asked questions on this topic: –
Is breakfast important?
Trends have gone from proclaiming breakfast as the most important meal to it being optional. Some even seem to think that it is detrimental for a number of fitness related goals.
What’s the deal? Is it or is it not important?
Well, it is important but not in the same way as it may be obvious. Allow us to explain: –
Popular opinion has long suggested that breakfast is the most important meal and since it’s the first one after a fasting period of 8 hours (sleeping), it jump-starts your metabolism and sets the tone for the rest of the day.
While this is partially true, we believe that the effect breakfast has on the rest of the meals in the day is more important than the effect of the breakfast meal itself.
So for example, if you were late for work and decided to give breakfast a miss, the chances of you having a rich (possibly fat-laden), calorific next meal as well as unhealthily snacking, increase greatly.
When you are hungry, you are a lot less picky about the food you eat. As such, breakfast serves to be a great equalizer for your body and mind to make healthier food choices along the rest of the day.
Of course, if you have to perform some sort of intense physical or mental activity first thing in the morning, it might be a good idea to hold off your first big meal of the day. We believe that your first meal of the day, regardless of time is your breakfast. Therefore, you are just delaying breakfast, not skipping it.
Does meal frequency affect metabolism or weight-loss?
Not really. Not directly at least. People who have a very active lifestyle or those who work-out multiple times a day may benefit from having smaller meals, for obvious reasons. The more food you have digesting in the gut; the less blood is available to your muscles for performing strenuous activity. The total number of meals or meal frequency might go up just to make ensure that one is getting sufficient calories, compensating for the smaller quantity of food consumed per meal.
Of course, the activity one engages on a high frequency meal plan in a case like this will lead to increased metabolic rate. It’s important to note that the meals itself are not causing this effect.
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But the real factor at play here Is the actual content of the meals. Food that tends to digest quickly would be more favourable to a high frequency meal plan whereas really dense food that takes a long time to process would be the choice for fewer, larger meals.
This is especially true when it comes to weight-loss. Eating smaller, more frequent meals laden with fat and protein will obviously not lead to more weight loss as compared to meals high in fruits, vegetables and starches regardless of meal frequency.
Any significant, healthy weight loss requires activity and so if you’re not exercising, that would be a much bigger factor compared to your meal frequency.
Will eating more frequently help in maintaining blood sugar levels?
This would again depend on what you’re eating rather than the frequency of portion size. Generally sugary or carb-rich food will spike blood sugar and insulin levels but they will come back down just as quickly. Fat and protein rich foods may not spike blood sugar as much but in many cases spike insulin just as much as sugar. The problem is that the levels stay high over the course of digestion, which is typically longer for protein rich foods. This leads to increased levels of fasting insulin and compounds the problem especially if you then add sugar to the mix with the fat/protein.
What happens when you’re engaging in some sort of endurance based exercise though? Our body can only absorb and process a small quantity of carbohydrates, the body’s preferred fuel source during exercise. Therefore, endurance athletes such as cyclists and runners are advised to eat small portions of carbs every hour or so. Of course, we wouldn’t consider these separate meals but this is an interesting exception and hence worth pointing out.
Interestingly, strength based athletes also seem to prefer about 6 meals a day, one every 3 hours from waking to bed time.
Will small and frequent meals help control cravings?
We believe that if your body Is craving food, there has got to be a reason for it. If you eat enough good food, cravings are less likely to gravitate you towards the unhealthy stuff. Eating whole food is particularly helpful in this regard as it is usually accompanied with fiber and other nutrients that self-regulate and make it really hard to eat too much.
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Give your body enough good, whole food and snack on healthy alternatives. Feed the cravings in the right manner and your body will thank you for it.
Frequency of meals and portion size are personal choices depending on a number of factors ranging from activity levels, work schedule and general preference. We think that it’s a good idea to do what works for you and not worry too much about optimizing this part of life as there is no strong evidence supporting its usefulness. There is however plenty of evidence supporting good, healthy food choices. These will continue to mean much more than how often or in what quantity you take your meals. If you are eating a healthy, clean diet, the adage of ‘eat before you’re hungry’ will serve you well.
If you are in doubt about whether your current meal frequency is best for you, experiment with what works while ensuring that you avoid possible hunger suppressants such as caffeine and are drinking plenty of water.
So, in conclusion, here’s something you don’t read often; eat as much and as often as you like, as long as it’s healthy.