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How Many Meals (and Snacks) Per Day is Best?
January 21, 2014
How Many Meals (and Snacks) Per Day is Best?

I am often asked whether there is any credible evidence that consuming the traditional three meals per day is better than consuming five meals per day or whether it is best to eat several meals and/or snacks through-out the day.  These questions also lead to the discussion of whether there is any drawback to skipping a meal if one is not hungry.

There is really little if any well-done credible science to support the theory that there is a significant difference between eating three meals per day versus five meals per day or just consuming several small meals and/or snacks throughout the day.  Likewise, the time of day that you consume your food also has little impact.

While you often hear of the advantages of several small meals over fewer large meals, as long as the overall diet is healthy and total calories are not in excess, there is not really a significant difference.  

Issues Surrounding More Frequent Meals 

Years ago, there was some speculation that more frequent meals helped lower cholesterol levels, triglycerides, blood sugar, and insulin.  However, most science organizations today will no longer make these claims, as there was and is little if any evidence to support them.

The claims that eating frequently keeps your metabolism raised is false as the increase in metabolism to digest food is only around 10-15 percent of the total calories ingested. So if you consume 300 calories, you may “burn” 30-45 more calories than if you did not consume anything during that same time, but you end up with a net gain of 255-270 calories. Taking in an extra new 255-270 calories to raise your metabolism by 30-45 calories would not be beneficial in regard to energy balance.

Issues Surrounding Less Frequent Meals 

Some recent studies in animals have shown that less frequent meals may have some advantages, and studies are currently being done on an every-other-day feeding schedule and a once-a-day feeding schedule. However, the main benefit of these reduced meal patterns may be strictly due to their ability in helping control total caloric intake and their overall healthy pattern and not directly as a result of their less frequent meals. 

One of the problems with eating less frequent meals is that we do not live in a controlled setting but in a toxic food environment where food is inexpensive, calorie dense and everywhere. Therefore, skipping meals and saying “no” to the food around us, can be difficult. In addition, some people find that if they eat less often they have trouble controlling the amounts they eat when they do eat.

So What’s the Answer?

In today’s unhealthy culture, there may be some psychological and sociological advantage to more frequent, small meals of healthy foods. For many, this may be an important issue as they may find small frequent meals gives them better “control” of their food intake. 

Remember, many people see this lifestyle as one that takes a lot of discipline and effort. To then add in reducing meal frequency is to add in more discipline and effort, which may make success more difficult without any significant additional benefit. 

So, in the end, because there is really little evidence anywhere that any of these minor details will matter, what does matter is to do which-ever one helps you with the best compliance and adherence over time.  

The most important issue is to follow the guidelines and principles of healthy eating which include:

  • Center your plate and your diet on fruits, vegetables, intact whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
  • Enjoy these foods as close to “as grown in nature” as possible, with minimal processing that does not detract from the nutritional value and/or add in any harmful components.
  • Choose a variety of foods from each of these recommended food groups.
  • Follow the principles of calorie density choosing a diet that is calorie adequate, satiating and nutrient sufficient.
  • Avoid/minimize the use of added salts, oils/fats and sugars.

Whether someone does this in three meals, five meals or several small meals and snacks may be less important than their total calorie intake and overall food choices. Therefore, the best choice is whichever one helps the individual incorporate the more important principles and guidelines.  

Some people just can’t maintain a meal plan with fewer meals and some just can’t maintain a meal plan with more frequent meals. I am one of the latter, and so I keep a more limited meal plan but would not insist on that for someone who feels more comfortable with more frequent meals. Success is not determined simply by the number of meals per day but by the overall dietary, nutritional and lifestyle pattern.

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