How many times a day should you eat?
-Monica Anz-Cavazos, MD
The question of how many times a day should you eat has been debated for years. Popular thought is that eating throughout the day will somehow increase your metabolism and hence help you lose weight. Dieters hope that eating frequent small meals throughout the day will curb their hunger so they do not overeat.
If you head to the bookstore, you will find hundreds of books on the “grazing” approach to eating. Telling people who love to eat that they need to eat all the time certainly sells lots of diet books, but the reality is that things that seem too good to be true, usually are. Let’s examine some of the touted benefits of grazing.
Your metabolic rate is the number of calories your body burns within a given time period at rest. There is an increase in the metabolic rate that occurs after a meal, known as the thermic effect of food (TEF). But the TEF is increased by the size of the meal, not the frequency of eating. Eating 3 meals of 800 calories results in the same thermic effect as eating 6 meals of 400 calories. The timing has no effect.
Hunger and Blood Sugar Levels
Curbing hunger with frequent eating is another claim of grazing proponents. The idea is that blood sugar levels are stabilized by eating throughout the day. While frequent eating may keep blood sugar levels more steady, it is keeping them steadily higher, and that does not decrease your hunger. As a matter of fact, it is more likely to do the opposite.
When we eat, our bodies secrete insulin to bring our blood glucose levels down. But where does it put that glucose after it is removed from your blood? If one is not needing it at the moment for energy (ie exercising), it is usually stored and usually as fat. Insulin is a storage hormone. If you’re trying to lose weight, you don’t want a storage hormone being secreted all day long. You’ll put yourself in ‘storage mode’ when you want to be in ‘burning mode’. Now, what you eat has a big impact on insulin production as well, but that’s for another blog.
Calories, Calories, Calories
An important element in deciding how many times a day you should eat is that of calories. We almost always underestimate how many calories our food contains. While you may think you are eating six small meals a day, you are usually actually eating the calories of six regular meals a day. This means that for the average person, eating more frequently simply results in eating too many calories.
You may be asking, “But if I only eat three times a day, won’t I eat more at those three meals because I’ll be hungrier at each meal?” In short, yes, you may eat more at those three meals, but not enough to make up for what you’ve skipped. Cornell University did a study in 2013 that found people consumed an average of 400 fewer calories per day when they cut out one meal from their eating routine. Intermittent fasting studies have shown that while you tend to eat a little more on the days/times you are eating, it is still less than if you ate regularly instead of fasting outside of 3 meals.
What We Recommend
While every patient is different and plans are tailored to every individual, in general we recommend our patients eat 2 – 3 times per day. Each meal should be primarily vegetables and lean proteins with a small portion of non-processed carbohydrates such as fruits, beans, or whole grains like farro or quinoa.
While changing your grazing habit may be hard in the beginning, your body will adjust over a couple of months. Our medical weight loss team is also here to help our patients with appetite suppression which can be helpful when making a big dietary change. For more information on Intermittent Fasting, check out our blog at https://www.sagebariatric.com/intermittent-fasting/.