This is a tricky question because there isn’t one straight answer for every person. Yet, we know active women and athletes have high energy needs and not eating frequently can take a toll on your body.
Meal frequency is a hot topic that can make your head spin. Some suggest eating smaller meals more frequently is the best way to manage your health. Others suggest that three larger meals work best, while others suggest it doesn’t matter as long as you include periods of fasting in your day.
As an individual with unique needs, eating habits, and wants, your ideal eating schedule likely will look different from a friend or family member. Here are some things to keep in mind as you determine how many meals per day you should eat.
A standard meal includes more food than snacks. Think of snacks as a mini-meal. You can include the same foods at both snacks and meals. This is important because it helps guide how many times per day you should eat.
Many people fear snacks or think snacks are unhealthy. And although there are mixed results with research, some research suggests that snacking may not affect weight management. Other research has found some people snacking’s effect on appetite depends on the type of snack consumed and the specific individual.
Snacking may not work for every person. It’s more important to listen to your body and follow a meal cadence that works for you.
Knowing your total daily energy needs can help you figure out an eating schedule. This is a place to start. Yet, remember to adjust your meal schedule and meal size based on how your hunger cues and how your body feels.
Your daily energy needs may vary slightly day-to-day, especially if you’re an athlete or take part in regular physical activity. Other life events, like pregnancy or menopause, may also change your energy needs. You may find that you’re hungrier on days you’re more physically active or even on days that you’re going through menstruation.
Your total calories per day give you an idea of how much to eat at each meal once you’ve decided the right frequency of meals for you. For example, if your meal plan suggests 2300 – 2500 calories per day, you could break this up between three meals and two snacks, or two meals and three snacks.
Food helps power every system in our body. Since it takes time to convert stored energy (like glycogen from muscles) into energy we can use, going too long between meals can have consequences.
Skipping a meal or going too long without eating can trigger anxiety, depression, and other emotional responses. Studies have found that adolescents who skip morning meals are more likely to experience stress and depression than those who ate breakfast. These symptoms might have to do with extra cortisol flowing through your body, because of low blood sugar levels.
Our brains run on glucose (which the easiest way for the brain to get energy is from carbohydrates), so skipping meals means less energy for your brain, muscles, and the rest of your body.
Multiple parts of the brain handle behavioral and emotional responses, which is why you may have a tough time making decisions, feel irritable, or be known as the “hangry” person.
We are born with built-in hunger and fullness signals. Specific hormones help regulate appetite. Leptin is the hormone that decreases your appetite when you’re full and ghrelin is your hunger hormone and tells your brain that you need fuel. These hormones are highly sensitive and get thrown off by many factors.
You may have experienced this temporarily when you’ve skipped a meal in the past and you found yourself saying, “It’s been so long since I’ve eaten, I’m no longer hungry.”
Frequently ignoring your hunger and fullness signals and not eating frequent meals can lead to a loss of these cues. It’s difficult to regain the same level of intuitiveness after following an eating schedule that doesn’t match your needs.
Skipping meals can throw off the digestive process. Confusion about meal frequency can lead to nausea, diarrhea, constipation, and unpredictable bathroom trips. Time between meals should be enough time for digestion, and eating regular meals with fiber and other health nutrients can help keep your digestive system running smoothly.
Skipping meals and limiting food intake out of guilt, because of stress, or to control weight, can lead to anorexia, bulimia, or orthorexia. Following a strict meal schedule that’s based only on calories or other external rules can cause emotional stress and can keep us from eating mindfully.
For many of us, food is readily available. Feeling slightly hungry before eating is a good thing. This tells us that your body is functioning the way it should. Ideally, your stomach feels empty and you have an urge to eat. This is a good time to eat because you haven’t reached the ravenous hunger phase where you’re more likely to overeat or choose low-nutrient foods.
We wish there was a straight answer to this question.
It may seem really simple (but harder to practice). Yet, the best guidance is to listen to your body, eat when you’re feeling hungry, and stop when you’re full.
But truthfully, the answer can vary based on you and your life situation. As dietitians, we recommend you focus on eating well-balanced meals and add in snacks to provide your body with enough energy. Figuring out what enough energy is for you may take some trial and error. And adding mindfulness to your daily meals can help you figure out how often you need to eat. Need a nutrition plan that’s specific to you and your needs? Check out our nutrition services for how we can help.