Optimal Meal Frequency – How Many Meals Should You Eat Per Day?

Girl Holding Banana PeelThere is a lot of confusing advice out there about the “optimal” meal frequency.

According to many “gurus” – eating breakfast jump starts fat burning and 5-6 small meals a day prevent a slowed metabolism.

To Eat Breakfast, or Not to Eat Breakfast

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” – sound familiar?

Conventional wisdom dictates that breakfast is a necessity, that it jump starts your metabolism for the day and helps you lose weight.

Observational studies consistently show that breakfast skippers are more likely to be obese than people who eat breakfast (1).

But correlation does not equal causation. This data does not prove that breakfast helps you lose weight, just that eating breakfast is associated with a lower risk of being obese.

This is most likely due to the fact that breakfast skippers tend to be less health conscious overall, perhaps opting for a doughnut at work and then having a big meal at McDonald’s at lunch.

Everyone “knows” that breakfast is good for you, therefore people who have healthy habits overall are more likely to eat breakfast.

The fact is that there is NO physiological need for breakfast. It does not “jump start” metabolism and there is nothing special about breakfast compared to other meals.

My advice: If you’re hungry in the morning, eat breakfast. If not, don’t… just make sure to eat healthy for the rest of the day.

Do More Frequent Meals Increase Metabolism?

Vegetables

The idea that eating more frequent, smaller meals raises metabolism is a persistent myth.

It is true that digesting a meal raises metabolism slightly and this phenomenon is known as the thermic effect of food.

However, it is the total amount of food consumed that determines the amount of energy expended during digestion.

Eating 3 meals of 800 calories will cause the same thermic effect as eating 6 meals of 400 calories. There is literally no difference.

Multiple studies have compared eating many smaller vs. fewer larger meals and concluded that there is no significant effect on either metabolic rate or total amount of fat lost (2, 3).

Eating More Frequently to Balance Blood Sugar Levels and Reduce Cravings

Measure Blood Sugar

One argument I see a lot is that people should eat often to balance blood sugar levels.

Eating big meals is thought to lead to rapid rises and falls in blood sugar, while eating smaller and more frequent meals should stabilize blood sugar levels throughout the day.

This, however, is not supported by science.

Studies show that people who eat fewer, larger meals have lower blood glucose levels on average (4).

They may have bigger “spikes” in blood sugar but overall their levels are much lower. This is especially important for people with blood sugar issues, because elevated blood sugars can cause all sorts of problems.

Less frequent eating has also been shown to improve satiety and reduce hunger compared to more frequent meals (5).

Eating Frequent Meals May Increase Risk of Colon Cancer

Nuts

There are some observational studies showing that more frequent eating is associated with an elevated risk of colon cancer, which is the 4th most common cause of cancer death.

The numbers are as high as a 90% increased risk for 4 meals per day, compared to 2 meals (6, 7).

Of course, correlation does not equal causation, so these studies do not prove that frequent eating raises the risk of colon cancer. But I think it’s worth mentioning.

Skipping Meals From Time to Time Has Health Benefits

Doctor Pointing His Finger

A very trendy topic in nutrition these days is “intermittent fasting” – which means that you strategically abstain from eating at certain times, such as skipping breakfast and lunch each day or doing two longer 24 hour fasts per week.

According to conventional wisdom, this approach would put you in “starvation mode” and make you lose your precious muscle mass. However, this is not the case.

Studies on short-term fasting show that metabolism is actually increased in the beginning. Only after 2-3 days does the metabolic rate go down (8, 9, 10).

Additionally, studies in both humans and animals show that intermittent fasting has various health benefits, including improved insulin sensitivity, lower glucose, lower insulin and various other improvements (11).

Intermittent fasting also induces a cellular clean-up process called autophagy, where the body’s cells clear up waste products that build up in the cells and contribute to aging and disease (12).

Take Home Message

It seems quite clear that the myth of frequent, small meals is just that… a myth.

There are no health benefits to eating more often, it doesn’t raise metabolism and it doesn’t improve blood glucose control. If anything, fewer meals is healthier.

So I’m going to propose a radical new idea for timing your meals…

1. When hungry, eat.
2. When full, stop.
3. Repeat indefinitely.

41 Comments

  1. Great article, very well written, easy and pleasant read. Thank you!

  2. I love your last piece of advice! Clever! ;-)

  3. 1. When hungry, eat.
    2. When full, stop.
    3. Repeat indefinitely.

    HaHaHa I’m loving it. Very good advice. My wife does this, she refuses to eat breakfast, will only once a day and sometimes stops halfway through, I ask why? she says I’m full! Her BMI is 21.

  4. ProudDaddy says:

    Zauner, et al., in Am Jnl of Clinical Nutrition, 2000, showed that “Resting energy expenditure in short-term starvation is INCREASED…” Short-term is 3 full days! This completely puts the lie to the idea that you must eat frequently to keep your metabolism reved up.

  5. Great article again Kris! Gosh I like your articles… Keep ‘em coming!

    Especially liked the Zauner et al. 2000 study showing that short-term fasting increases your metabolism—I’ll keep that in mind.

  6. Another great article that is plain simple and uncomplicated to read and digest. Kris thank you for opening my eyes.

  7. Hi Kris,

    Great article! The Leangains 16/8 IF protocol kicks a$$. Very easy and very convenient.
    I’d recommend everyone try it out. Kris is probably the best blogger for referencing studies to back up his articles but hands down, the best way to test these theories is to do it yourself.
    Since my wife and I eat our meals together, she adopted this lifestyle without even knowing she was intermittent fasting. Now she trains in the fasted state too.

    –kelly

  8. Just a quick question here. I’m assuming that if you skip breakfast that your blood sugar is low since you have not eaten anything since the previous evening. Its common knowledge that your brain needs sugar to function properly, (not sugar as such but you know what I mean). I always feel sluggish on the mornings when I skip breakfast and I feel better if I eat even though I may or may not be hungry. Any insights?

    Thank you

  9. ProudDaddy says:

    There’s plenty of glycogen in the liver to fuel the brain with glucose. When that runs out, gluconeogenesis makes up the difference. You more likely suffer from something in the brain similar to addiction. Buy a glucometer if you don’t believe me.

  10. Wendy Walker says:

    Thanks Kris. Yours is the only food blog I continue to follow. I like your format and you message is always clear and concise.
    ~Wendy

  11. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

  12. Great article Kris!
    I can’t tell you how many times I’m asked the question about eating 4-6 small meals a day. I don’t advocate this eating schedule because many times people end up eating more each time they’re exposed to food. They start eating what is supposed to be a smaller meal and end up eating a full-sized meal because they don’t simply stop at snack size portions.

    I’ve found it better to use some form of IF with a 16/8 or 12/12 schedule. It’s easy and very effective for getting lean. At most, three standard meals are sufficient for the majority of individuals.
    The six meal frequency protocol is funny. First we see people carrying water bottles everywhere they go to prevent dehydration. Now people are carrying food or buying snacks every few hours. What’s next? Soon, we will all need back-packs to carry the crap we are told we need.

    Phil

  13. Samantha says:

    Wow. I must admit, I’ve been guilty of saying pretty much all of these things because “so & so” said it was true. This article was direct, and right to the facts– my kind of reading. Definitely inspired to dig deeper into research now! (Goodbye next 4 hours of my life)

  14. Hi Kris,

    Thanks again for your info. I do have two questions. One regards the idea (or possible ‘myth’ as you may call it) that breakfasts can make you feel full and therefore contribute to having smaller meals later. Especially following how you have mentioned in one of your previous articles that eggs – a common breakfast ingredient – can make you feel highly satiated. And in here you say “…there is nothing special about breakfast compared to other meals.”, but wouldn’t we need to replenish ourselves with the nutrients we have been missing for the last 12 hours ( ≈ sleep + abstinence before sleeping), or is this a concern for bodybuilders worrying about their protein intake only?

    Then my other question refers to the frequency of meals; are snacks counted as meals or are you referring to a full plate of something? I can’t imagine you include snacks, where for instance an occasional piece of fruit and/or some nuts are supposed to be a good idea – but I also can’t imagine you mean people have 5-6 ‘full’ meals a day (unless again, they’re exceptions like bodybuilders or extremely obese).

    Your response,- and anyone else’s for that matter, is highly appreciated!

    -Billybob

  15. Jonathan says:

    http://goo.gl/7Rb5k
    http://goo.gl/eZ1uN
    http://goo.gl/2OP0V

    Its possible its not the same with all women, but I’ve read several articles of women having issues with Intermittent fasting. It apparently isn’t great for everyone. Its something to keep in mind.

    http://www.jackkruse.com/blog-index/

    What are your thoughts on Jack’s Leptin Reset RX? He says if you are leptin resistant its good to eat within 30 minutes of waking as part of the plan to restore leptin sensitivity.

  16. That is exactly how I ate up to my 20′s. Then I started reading about this diet, that diet, this piece of advice, that part of advice…

    Eventually I lost touch with my inner self with regard to eating. I naturally started to put on weight. Never a lot of weight but enough to keep my mind totally consumed by how and when and what to eat. I did begin to see the correlation between these false notions and weight.

    However I have never been able to be in touch with my younger self and just EAT WHEN HUNGRY… STOP WHEN FULL… JUST CONTINUE. That type of simplicity is indeed the answer to everything.

  17. Wenchypoo says:

    Studies show that people who eat fewer, larger meals have lower blood glucose levels on average (4).

    They may have bigger “spikes” in blood sugar but overall their levels are much lower. This is especially important for people with blood sugar issues, because elevated blood sugars can cause all sorts of problems.

    It depends on what you eat in those meals–my husband, who has a long paternal familial history of diabetes, eats very low carb (Banting style), and his post-meal spikes are lower than mine (and I have no diabetes in the family at all). Hubby’s now the only male member of his family tree that ISN’T on insulin or meds, and he only eats twice daily.

  18. Megan Lynch says:

    There are too many beliefs and rituals we do in order to lose weight. I really like your take home message. Eat, when you are hungry and stop if you are full. That is really good advice. Other things that you must follow all the time is to eat healthy foods or a balanced meal equipped with all the nutrients you need, stay away from vices and try to improve your lifestyle.

  19. Catherine says:

    I have never been a breakfast person, I always had just coffee to get me going in the morning, until every doctor I ever saw told me I have to eat at least three meals per day.

    I started to take their advise and gained ten pounds. Now I’m doing like I always did, eat when I’m hungry according to my stomach, not the clock.

  20. Great article, straight and to the point. I hate how people think there is a one size fits all method to eating. There isn’t! I don’t eat breakfast and I feel far better doing so, but I know others who will pass out if they don’t eat every two hours!

  21. Doug,

    You’ve GOTTA stop buying the BMI nonsense, dude! I’ve dubbed it the ‘Bloody Meaningless Integer/Index’ for good reason – it takes no account of the fat:muscle ratio. My BMI is around 18.2, but I know I’m too fat, that’s because I’ve lost a lot of muscle weight due to ill-health. Similarly, a rugby player (footballer to you, I guess) will have a BMI in the obese range – but he’ll be carrying a LOT of muscle – and very little fat (and, obviously, that’s preferable).

    It’s high time we stopped using BMI as a measure of obesity; it’s a ratio of height to weight, which is totally meaningless, and start using body fat percentage. Yes, it’s more difficult to measure accurately (those scales which claim to measure it, are very often inaccurate, as they use bio-impedance analysis, which means they send a tiny (80mAh) current through your body and measure the time it takes to return to your feet. Because muscle holds more water than fat, the faster the current returns, the lower your BF%. But, if you’ve just drunk a load of water, this will distort the result (giving you a lower figure) and similarly if you’re dehydrated (result will be higher). It’s likely to be lower in winter (as you tend not to drink as much) than summer, and it could very well be different if you measure before you pee, than after…

    So, as there are FAR too many variables, it’s not reliable. Hydrostatic weighing is the most reliable, but it’s rather expensive.

    Whatever, we NEED a better measure of obesity than BMI…

  22. Gigi,

    That’s because they’re still wedded to low-fat/high-carb. I guarantee that, if they switched to low-carb/high-fat that certainly wouldn’t happen (not if they did it properly and became fat-adapted…).

  23. I don’t disagree, but would appreciate your rebuttal to the following alternative viewpoint. Avid exercisers need protein to repair muscles and are advised to eat some protein immediately following exercise, and continue to eat protein periodically throughout the day.

    I’ve seen articles stating that there is a limit to how much protein the body can convert at one time, and if you eat too much protein in one meal, the “excess” protein is converted to fat.

    Therefore, these articles recommend eating several small servings of protein throughout the day. Your thoughts?

    • Jonathan says:

      I think its generally said that excess protein is converted to sugar through Gluconeogenesis not fat at least at first. If you have excess amino acids that aren’t used as fuel or used to produce protein for muscle repair or other molecules that need protein they are turned into sugar and and if they aren’t utilized as sugar they will either go into glycogen storage and assuming glycogen stores are full they will go to fat.

      I’m pretty sure they are converted to glucose before they are converted to fat and so they may go to glycogen stores instead of fat assuming the glucose isn’t used as fuel.

  24. Hi.

    I eat 2 rashers of bacon at around 8am and then do not eat until around 5pm, where I have my largest meal. I find that I am hungry during the day, but do not feel dizzy or any other side affects.

    I find that if eat this way I have no cravings of any kind what so ever and manage my hunger better. I usually average about 1,500 cals and of course I eat LCHF.

    I never would have thought that I could eat this way, mainly because I used to weigh 26 stone. I’m 60lbs away from my target and have not only changed my appetite, I have also changed how I think about food; which I think is the most important thing of all.

    Great blog. xx

  25. What a relief it was to find this article. I’ve never been a breakfast eater but gained weight when I was younger through eating a lot of rubbish. I’ve been a yo-yo dieter for as long as I can remember and every single diet I’ve ever been on said I had to eat breakfast. Not only would it raise my metabolism, it would fill me up so I wouldn’t be craving cupcakes or doughnuts for morning tea. Well that simply isn’t me. I don’t know why it is but if I don’t eat breakfast, I don’t feel hungry for hours; if I do eat breakfast I’m hungry again within two hours.

    And don’t get me started on all those colleagues who keep telling me about starvation mode.

  26. What if your goal is strength and building muscle for powerlifting?

  27. Great article, rarely do I see articles like this with valid up to date information backed by studies. Your philosophy of “When hungry, eat. When full, stop.” makes sense. Hopefully more people will clue on to this information and stop buying into the supplement industry propaganda of “6 small meals a day, because you can only assimilate so much protein in each meal” BS. Just a ploy to get people buying meal replacement shakes.

  28. So I’m going to propose a radical new idea for timing your meals…

    1. When hungry, eat.
    2. When full, stop.
    3. Repeat indefinitely.

    #2 Should be “When you are no longer hungry, stop.”

    There is no need to eat until you are full.

  29. Thank you…thank you…thank you! That you provide citations for your information is SO important. There is so much opinion that gets published as fact on these topics its hard to know what’s right. The citations really help! I have lost 30 lbs and am trying to lose another 10 – but these last 10 are the hardest 10 lol.

  30. Shell McC says:

    Larry pinched my first line :0) but I’ll say it anyway!

    Thank you… thank you… thank you!

    I have not eaten more than a score of breakfasts since I was a willful teenager i.e. about 45 years. I’m relatively slim, I have no chronic diseases and I very rarely need to visit a doc. Therefore, I regularly do not eat from 7-8pm to noon the following day.

    The only problem I have is the constant well-meaning advice to eat breakfast. I will be sending people a hyperlink to this page in future.

  31. Robert Anthony says:

    This is a note to the author. Which meals you decide to eat does make a difference in your metabolic rate. In one recent study as reported in the NY Times that was terminated due to an inability to show that people limiting meal to breakfast (6-10am) and lunch (12-4pm) compared with a study arm consuming meals later in the day, failed to show a reduced rate of heart attack and stroke in these 45+ year old diabetics.

    This may have been due to the widespread use of statin drugs to lower cholesterol in both groups. The interesting thing about the study is that, when consuming the same number of calories, the breakfast-lunch only group lost significantly more weight, I.e., their BMR was higher, and the only difference in the two groups was the timing of their meals.

    So in this case that is not just an association, it proves causality. At least one other recent study has shown the same and I tried it and found the same. After six weeks my BMR was 3350 calories per dAy, surprisingly high, and that is even though I went from strenuous daily aerobic exercise in the preceding 4 months, when I gained 3 pounds, to no exercise and a sedentary lifestyle during the 1st 6 weeks eating only breakfast and lunch, and I lost 12 pounds in that 6 weeks, which is shocking really.

    So skipping the evening meal produces true fasting while you sleep without affecting or possibly increasing your BMI. Also, obesity has not become the epidemic it is because people are overrating during the early hours of the day.

    Overeating occurs almost exclusively after 5pm. If you eat breakfast when you wake up, hungry or not, and lunch at a normal lunch time, 12-2pm, even after a true overnight fast you aren’t going to be very hungry at breakfast or lunch and you will have no appetite between those two meals.

    Eating late in the evening and close to bedtime is our problem, it is evidence-based. If you don’t believe the evidence, just ask a home who is overweight. They will agree that if they overeat that almost always occurs in the late evening or night, almost never early in the day.

  32. Robert Anthony, that makes sense for ME. I can go all day without eating or eat a bowl of oatmeal before noon, and I eat my big meal in the evening 6-8 pm. I have gained 40 lbs since I began eating this way.

  33. Un Ji Byeoun says:

    The citations were wonderful. Thank you for the good article.

  34. I had always been a no breakfast person purely because I did not feel hungry in the mornings. On moving in with my partner 20 years ago I was told I should eat breakfast, I needed it. On starting the breakfast regime I felt nauseous for the first 6 months. I would be hungry within 2 hours of breakfast and therein I started to overeat and gain weight, and the food and diet obsessions began.

    It’s been just over 2 weeks now not having breakfast again. I feel liberated!! I am listening to my body again. I am clear headed in the mornings. I no longer have food and sugar cravings, I enjoy my food more, I don’t overeat, I am making good food choices, my weight is starting to come down slowly. These things dispel all the health statistics and food myths for me and I’m embracing it.

    I do acknowledge that not everyones body is the same. Each of us must determine and listen to our individual hunger – we are not all the same. No one size fits all in the food stakes. But I do wish work colleagues and family would be more supportive in my quest to listen to my body’s hunger. It’s like finding a long lost friend again.

    Thank you so much for this article Kris, very timely, I am letting go of the food myths I have been fed for the past 20 years.

  35. Hi, Kris.

    Thanks so much for your clear and concise article, with the all-important links to studies.

    I am really overweight and have tried everything. This is the next diet I am going to try. I hope it works, and I do have a good feeling about it. All that preparing and eating frequent meals does for me is focus my mind (makes me obsess) on food and make me hungry as a bear!

    Before this article, I read another that made many claims (all in opposition of what you claim) but offered no links to studies. Just one ‘opinion’ of the billions that are on the web.

    Thanks again.

  36. Thank you! I have always said this! “Eat when hungry; stop when full.” The problem is most people do not recognize the difference between true physiological hunger and other forms of “hunger” (I call “head hunger”).

    I know people who say, “I am hungry all the time!” but just because there is a craving, albeit a real craving, does not mean that it is true “hunger”. Yep. Thank you for posting this!

  37. I have been cutting out rice, potatoes and bread. And my blood sugar level is staying under 7.5. This is without taking my tablets. Can I now go off tablets completely?

  38. Hi all happy dieters, non-dieters, and gluttoners.

    The way I interpret the most recent eating science is that if we eat a big breakfast according to the formula: “stop eating when you are full”, then we will have enough energy for the following 5 – 6 hours. If we then, around or somewhat beyond noon, have our next meal, according to the same formula, we again will have enough energy for another 5 – 6 hours, which would be all we need in a day.

    That is, two meals (breakfast and lunch) according to the formula: ‘fill up your stomach tank and keep on going’. When night comes it is time for the digestion boosting hormone serotonin to change into the healing boosting hormone melatonin.

    And if our stomach is empty when this happens between 6 and 8 in normally day-working people this changing phase will go smoothly, otherwise not.

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