There seems to be a lot of confusion about how many meals a day you should eat to lose weight the best. Is it better to eat 2 to 3 big meals or 5 to 6 small ones?
People often say that eating breakfast gets your metabolism going, that eating smaller meals more often can reduce hunger and cravings, or that eating right before bed makes you gain weight. And what about fasting every so often?
In reality, the research shows mixed results, and what works for one person might not work for everyone. Here are the answers to the most common questions about how often you should eat. This will help you decide what is best for you.
Does Eating Frequently Speed Up Your Metabolism?
In simple terms, your metabolism is a way to measure how well your body makes and uses energy, or how many calories you burn every day. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR), also called your resting metabolic rate, is the biggest factor in how much energy you use every day (RMR).
This is the minimum number of calories your body needs to work even when you’re not doing anything. It makes up about 60–70% of your total calorie needs. Depending on your age, muscle mass, genes, overall health, etc., your BMR can be very different from person to person.
This is why some people can eat whatever they want and not gain weight; they have a fast metabolism. Exercise or just moving around more can also make you burn more calories, but for most people, this is still less than 30% of their total output. So, how does what you eat change your metabolism?
Well, the type of food you eat and how much you eat in general only affect a small part of your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Since it takes work to digest food, the act of eating itself burns some calories. But it’s not much—less than 10% of the calories you burn every day (1).
The idea that eating revs up your metabolism is way oversold, and it hasn’t been shown to be a good way to help you lose weight. Almost always, the calories you eat are more than the calories you burn while digesting them.
To put this in perspective, chewing burns about 11 calories an hour, and digesting a typical meal uses about 10% of the calories in it (2).
So, if you ate a 200-calorie meal in 10 minutes (which is unlikely because most people eat much faster and don’t chew for 10 minutes straight), you would burn about 1.8 calories from chewing and another 20 calories from digesting, for a total of 22 calories.
If you ate this meal three times a day, you’d burn 66 calories, and 132 calories if you ate it six times a day. But you have to think about the total number of calories. If you eat six meals a day instead of three, you eat 1200 calories instead of 600 calories.
Even if you ate the same number of calories, chewing would not make a big difference in how many calories you burned (about 1.8 calories for every extra 10 minutes of chewing). So, in the end, the total number of calories you eat is more important than how often you eat.
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When Trying to Lose Weight, How Often Should You Eat?
Jessica Bachman, Ph.D., is the director of nutrition education at Stronger U. She says that each person’s goals should be taken into account when making recommendations about eating patterns.
Theory #1: Eat often
One popular way to stay healthy and keep your weight stable for a long time has been to spread calories out over the day by eating several small meals.
Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles, a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, and owner of Active Nutrition in Southbury, Connecticut, suggests eating small meals and snacks every three to four hours throughout the day to support your activity and keep you full.
She says that doing this may make you less likely to eat too many calories at meals. When you’re hungry, she says, you’re more likely to reach for high-calorie junk food like pizza and soda.
There is some evidence to back this up. Bachman led a study that was published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It found that people who were normal weight or kept their weight stable ate more often than people who were obese.
Bachman says, “The idea is that if you eat small meals and snacks all day long, you never let yourself get too hungry.” “We know that people tend to eat more when they are very hungry, so if they can avoid getting too hungry, maybe they won’t eat too much and can control their calorie intake and, in the end, their weight.”
Theory #2: Eat Three Times Daily, and That’s It
Bachman followed up on her first study with a six-month weight-loss program for two groups of 25 adults who were overweight or obese. One group was told to get all of their daily calories in three meals, while the other group was told to eat meals and snacks every two to three hours.
Both groups lost weight, but the three meals-a-day groups ate less and lost more. She says, “What we found went against what observational research had found.” “It seemed like eating less often and therefore having fewer chances to eat too much could help people lose weight.”
Theory #3: Try Eating at Set Times
Some research on mice suggests that focusing on time-restricted feeding, which means eating only during a nine- to the 12-hour window each day, could help obese people lose weight.
The Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, did a study on time-restricted eating instead of focusing on specific diets or the number of meals eaten. 400 mice were tested by the researchers, who were led by Associate Professor Satchidananda Panda.
The mice were fed a variety of foods, from those high in fat to those that only had sucrose or fructose. Scientists found that people who could only eat between 8 and 12 hours a day lost weight and were healthier than those who could eat all day long.
They found that the body’s ability to use calories effectively depends more on its natural rhythms of activity and rest than on what it eats.
Even the fat mice who could eat high-fat food all the time and got fat still lost weight when they were only allowed to eat during feeding times. Even if the mice ate the same number of calories, even if they ate a high-fat or high-sugar diet, those who ate between 9 and 12 hours were leaner.
“It shows that when you eat is more important than how many calories it has,” says Circadian Biology Ph.D. Amandine Chaix, who took part in the study and thought these results could have more positive effects when tested on humans.
Bachman said that research is moving towards meal timing, which may help older people as well as those who are overweight, especially when it comes to the amount of protein they eat.
Bachman says, “This could have important uses for older people, who often lose muscle as they get older, as well as for anyone trying to lose weight.”
All of this might come down to counting calories. Bachman says, “If someone wants to lose weight, they need to create a calorie deficit, which is best done by eating fewer calories and exercising more.”
If the research on when and how often to eat those calories confuses you, keep in mind that different approaches may work for different people, and the main point is to focus on the quality and quantity of the calories you eat.
There is no one right way to divide up those calories or decide when to eat them.
A healthy, well-balanced diet should include lots of fresh vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, healthy fats (mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats), lots of water, and whole grains.
By default, this way of eating will give you a lot of fiber, which is thought to make you feel full, help your digestion, and possibly help you eat the right amount of calories.
No matter how you go about losing weight, the end goal should not only be to lose weight but also to figure out how to live a healthier life so that you can keep your new weight.