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The Ideal Meal Frequency for Weight Loss – Is 1, 3 or 5 Meals a Day Best?

My manager at my old office job was always trying to lose weight. He said he didn’t eat breakfast but, in an effort to “be able to fit into my pants without splitting them”, he started skipping lunch as well.

He told me he was now eating just once a day and was sure he’d lose weight. What happened? He got noticeably fatter and fatter in the coming months.

​I don’t know how many calories he was eating for dinner. But even with a very big meal, could it have been more than someone eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, or even someone eating five times a day? To say only calories caused his dramatic weight gain is oversimplification at best.

More likely, the calories he was eating weren’t nearly as important as what he was eating and when.

Why Starving Yourself Doesn't Work

There’s several reasons why someone would be likely to gain weight by starving their body all day and then gorging themselves at night.

First, your body can adjust the way it uses the food you give it and becomes better at storing fat for emergencies if you teach it that there will be regular periods of restriction. While there may be some health benefits in intermittent fasting, deliberately skipping breakfast and especially lunch each day is not the same thing.

Your body would also be likely to produce more cortisol, the stress hormone, in an attempt to operate under these conditions. High levels of cortisol are known to be associated with weight gain. When you’re stressed out you’re not only more likely to reach for junk food, you’re also producing large amounts of a hormone that researchers believe increases abdominal fat deposits.

Hormones and weight loss

Another factor why my old boss’s weight-loss strategy was so counterproductive was the timing of his one big meal of the day. Eating lots of food just before bed, especially high carbohydrate grain food which stimulates insulin – the primary hormone responsible for fat storage – is a really bad idea.

It’s customary in many Asian cultures to go out for a slow walk after dinner to help stimulate digestion. Most people in Western societies though are relatively inactive in front of the TV following their dinner and then off to bed.

There is little bodily requirement for the incredibly high amount of potential energy they’ve just consumed, so of course it’s more likely to be stored as fat.​

​Eating More Often to Maintain a Healthy Weight

By comparison to my manager, sitting at the desk next to him, I was eating with a meal frequency of five times a day and three of those times were at the office. I’d usually have breakfast around 6am, eat again at 10am, at 1pm, again at 4pm and then have a light dinner at around 7pm.

There were two things I’d regularly hear from him and other workmates. First of all, why are you always eating? Secondly, why aren’t you fat? Even working in a sedentary office job, my weight stayed at the same 73 to 75 kg that it has been for many years.The reason for this wasn’t that I was eating less calories.

Unless my boss ate like the guy from Man Versus Food when he got home, my five meals a day must have certainly added up to more calories than his. I believe the key was in the smaller size of the meals, the regular timings and especially the type of food I was eating (and still eat).

Fat burning breakfast

Breakfast was usually free range eggs in an omelette or scrambled with avocado and tomato and no bread. Eggs provide steady, long-lasting energy and fill you up really well.

As an alternative, I found I could also have good energy levels eating slower digesting fruits like pineapple, papaya, apples or berries, mixed with a little natural yogurt and walnuts or pecans. This combination did not seem to rapidly increase my blood sugar in the morning, though I wouldn’t suggest them before bed if you were trying to lose weight.

An Example If You Would Like to Try Eating This Way:

Don’t Eat after 9pm
  • At 10am I’d generally have mixed nuts and seeds with a small amount of fresh fruit like an apple or a tub of berries.
  • For 1pm and 4pm I’d usually have taken small meals made from dinner the night before, often a healthy stirfry with lots of vegetables, good fats and clean protein like wild salmon or organic chicken.
  • The same amount that most people would have had for one lunch, I’d split into two and have at 1 and again at 4. I was rarely hungry at work and it’s good to get away from your desk and the computer screen, even if for just 10 minutes to eat and clear your head and rest your eyes.
  • In the evening, I’d make up a vegetable and protein based meal that was never light on the good fats like this virgin coconut oil or cold pressed avocado oil. I wouldn’t have a very big plate of it though.
  • When it cooled down most went into containers to be used for lunches at work. Often there were two different meals to take for the next afternoon as I’d mix them up from different nights to keep things interesting.

While most of the guys I worked with were having sandwiches or rolls for lunch and then hungry again in the afternoon and going to the corner store for snacks, this eating five times a day routine kept my energy steady and probably saved me a lot of money too.

Could something like this work for you? I’d certainly recommend giving it a try if you’re not satisfied with feeling stressed and hungry for most of your day.

Processed food

There’s an important thing to notice with this type of five meals a day plan. There wasn’t any grains in it like bread, pasta or cereals. I can’t say I never have grain-based food, but I generally keep them to the weekends or days off when I’m better able to deal with the havoc high carbohydrate foods can play with your blood sugar and energy.

My previous article on Why Bread Makes You Fat has much more detail on why the grains they use to fatten up cattle will do just the same to you and how to lose weight by eating more, not less.

Three Square Meals?

600 calorie meals

What about three meals a day? Can you eat this way and still keep your weight down and your energy levels steady?

I believe it’s possible, though you’d make it a lot easier on yourself by following the advice in the Why Bread Makes You Fat article link above.

Meals based around protein and healthy fats digest a lot slower than high carbohydrate meals and don’t provoke the insulin rollercoaster of brief energy highs, longer slumps and more hunger and weight gain.

Personally, I’d still keep a bag or two of weight loss friendly almonds or buttery pumpkin seeds in your office or car. A handful of these when you’re hungry is a great way to dodge a junk food binge.

1, 3 or 5 Meals a Day – What’s the Best Meal Frequency?

Special planned fasts aside, few people would do well on just one meal a day. If it has to be that way for a short time for some reason, then make it a big breakfast of protein and good fats. The general rule though is starving your body teaches it to get better at storing fat.​

That’s why those starvation diets rarely work and even when they seemed to temporarily, you end up even fatter a few months later.Three large meals a day is an option, but it’s made much easier when those meals are based around good protein, healthy fats and lots of nutritious vegetables.

While everyone’s physiology is different, I personally think the five small meals a day plan is the best. Eating smaller amounts, roughly every 3 to 4 hours, provides a steady energy and stable body weight that would surprise many people who have gotten used to the wild energy fluctuations of their daily big three grain-rich meals.

Have you tried changing up your meal frequency and eating smaller meals more often? Or normalizing your blood sugar fluctuations with less concentrated grain food? I be really interested to hear what works best for you.

Jim Dillan
 

Jim Dillan is health and wellness researcher, writing about natural nutrition, improving your physical and mental well-being and moving to a healthier lifestyle. His website Superfood Profiles has detailed articles on superfood health benefits, hair and skin treatments and healthy recipes.

  • paul

    This conventional wisdom is what I always had heard and believed, but now I am reading new evidence from Mark Sisson and Dr Mercola about fasting daily for 16-18 hours daily, and how it trains out bodies to burn fat during the fasting period. The research is interesting and I would be interested in your opinion. So now I only eat in the 12-8pm timeframe, other than water and lemon water etc. to see how it works, both for weight control and for improved general health.

    • Hi Paul and thanks for your question.

      I personally think occasional intermittent fasting, perhaps once a week for general health or twice for weight loss, does have some significant health benefits. Done every day I think the body would start to adjust and may well get better at storing body fat ‘for emergencies’. That said, I highly respect Mark Sisson’s view on these things so I’ll read what he has to say.

      The point of this article was more to advise against one big meal a day, especially in the evening before bed. Regardless of whether total calories are lower I really believe it’s counterproductive for weight loss.

      If your current methodology is working well for you I’d encourage you to continue with it. Many people though really struggle with hunger and in this case smaller, grain free, protein and vegetable rich meals more regularly can be a good option for weight loss. I’ve found this is what works best for me.

      The Eat Stop Eat program also revolves around intermittent fasting and has a lot of research supporting the benefits of it – https://healthambition.com/eat-stop-eat-review/

      Hope this helps.

  • Mike Paul

    Hi Jim – interesting article. I am a personal trainer who has done both regular 5 to 6 times per day, and also regular intermittent fasting. Both have worked for me. I agree the type of food you eat has a massive influence. One issue I have with most mainstream dietary advice is that is predominantly centred around weightloss / fatloss. I understand why but the frustrating thing is when people eat for this they can find many unhealthy ways to achieve their aim. If people were taught to eat for health, in all likelyhood they would reach their weight/fat loss goals with far less effort. I found this out after being diagnosed with cancer. For years my weight went up and down by a stone to 2 stones. I trained lots, but ate and drank rubbish – loads of grain based products, pastsa, bread, tortillas, pittas etc with loads of fatty meat and no veggies (perfect storm?). On finding I had cancer I reasssed and decided that I needed to change things. I looked at food and subsequently meal frequency differently. I followed a specific anticancer nutritional protocol, my health improved, and the weight dropped off without me ever getting hungry. I now fast regularly but primarily for the health benefits that have emerged in the research, and sometimes for fatloss. I have had to experiment along the way, but find that as life moves on so my nutritional needs vary. I agree prolonged starvation is not good, but I have also thrived on 1 large meal late in the day. Other times, I need to eat loads. When we start taking responsibility for our own health and learn to listen to our own bodies rather than listening to the experts the whole time, that is when we will start getting it right.

  • abbas

    nice article

  • Arletta Sloan

    I don’t believe (based on personal experience, research and observation) that there is anything remotely like an ideal meal frequency. For anyone who is not experiencing a health issue that requires a full-on, day in/day out schedule it is more likely to be a case of eat when you are hungry and time allows and eat healthy foods; and, if you are hungry and time does not allow, wait until time does allow. And, if that is too close to bedtime, wait until the next time you are hungry and not so tired it no longer matters.

    Eating 3 meals a day is intermittent fasting, if you eat them in the traditional manner and you don’t have snacks. So is eating 2 meals or 1 meal per day, and, a whole lot else.

    I fasted intermittently, without knowing it. by eating 3 meals per day, no snacks and simply starting and ending early. I lost a lot of weight.

    I fasted intermittently, with knowing it, by eating 3 meals per day, no snacks and ending by 4 p.m. and lost a little weight, then gained some of it back, eating the same kind of meals but ending at 6 p.m. I did an IF where I ate two meals one day then skipped 42 hours of eating and I lost a little weight, but, my health improved vastly in other ways and one of the reasons I didn’t lose that much weight is I gained muscle. I was ending my eating around 1 p..m. – 2 p.m. for that, which is the same time I was ending my eating (if not earlier) when I had done IF without it being on purpose.

    Now, I lost a LOT of weight, for a while, by eating huge meals that always included a giant bunch of leafy greens and lots of other vegetables in every dish or with every piece of meat and usually was begun by eating a half to 1 whole grapefruit. And, I was usually done eating by 4 p.m. But, before that I had been completely out of control with drinking massive quantities of diet soda, quite a bit of beer, and way too much candy, doughnuts, pancakes and pasta. So, that was a severe calorie reduction, as well as removing and replacing a lot of bad “food” with good food. And for that I often finished eating around 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

    But, after a while, that just quit working. I started having more allergic reactions to foods. It was probably related to detoxification. And, you see, that’s where IF shines.

    It is long-time common practice among most of humanity that if you are severely ill, if your liver is failing, etc. you just eat very little or not at all. Clear broths, protein (gelatin, bone broth), easily digestible vegetables if you can handle them, maybe just plain water and nothing else.

    IF is sort of like that fasting process, but, over a much shorter period of time. For people with malnutrition or a lot of stress, they probably need to eat 1-3 meals every day, or every other day. Or, to follow Dr. Berg’s method of 3 days of 3 meals, 3 days of 2 meals, 3 days of 1.5 meals. Just to make sure their body is getting what it needs. But, the days of not eating actually help them digest the food better and rebuild their body better.

    All of which goes to say, it is a highly subjective process. What is ideal depends on what you need at the time and what you have been doing beforehand and what you hope to achieve. Even for the individual, the answer can change.