We’ve been told for years that the key to healthy eating, weight loss and weight management is eating 5-6 mini meals throughout the day, but is it right for everyone? Here I’m going to share my personal experience and why 3 meals a day works better for me.
I’ve always been a huge snacker. Growing up I snacked a ton, mostly on processed junk, and when I first started eating healthier in college everything I read (namely health magazines) said that in order to lose weight I needed to eat 5-6 small meals a day.
I took this advice to heart and continued with my snacking habits… only choosing healthier snack options over junk.
I actually loved this style of eating in the beginning because eating was like a fun hobby for me, something I looked forward to. With eating 5-6 small meals a day I could eat more often. Sounds great, right?
Here are the main reasons 5-6 meals a day seems like a good idea:
1) You get to eat more often. Yay! 2) You never let yourself get super hungry so you never reach the point of being hangry or so hungry that you make unhealthy food decisions. 3) Eating every few hours boosts your metabolism. 4) Your blood sugar levels stays balanced.
Over the years I learned that most of the pros for eating 5-6 small meals a day aren’t necessarily true (for everyone) and that eating 3 meals a day (with a snack on days I need it) works so much better for me and my lifestyle.
Let’s chat about the pros for mini meals and why some aren’t really pros at all:
1) You get to eat more often.
This sounds fun (especially if you’re a food lover) but it’s also kind of pain because half your day is spent eating or thinking about what you’re going to eat. And eating more often means planning healthy snacks ahead of time and making more decisions about what you’re going to have. It’s much easier to plan 3 healthy meals each day than it is to plan 6 healthy meals each day.
You’re also thinking about food ALL THE TIME.
What I quickly realized with myself is that making my main meals on the smaller side meant that I was never truly satisfied and immediately after finishing one meal I would be thinking about what I could have next. This meant I was constantly thinking about food. Packing snacks whenever I went anywhere — always having to be prepared so that I could be eating every 2-3 hours.
2) You never let yourself get super hungry so you never reach the point of being hangry or so hungry that you make unhealthy food decisions.
No one wants to get to the point of feeling hangry, but you can totally keep hunger at bay with three meals a day if you’re eating the right combo of macronutrients. A substantial meal (like a meal-sized salad) with a good source of protein, healthy fats, lots of veggies and smart carbs should easily keep you full for 4-6 hours.
Also, never letting yourself feel hunger isn’t necessarily a good thing because you lose sight of your body’s hunger cues. With the 5/6 mini meals approach you often end up eating before you’re actually hungry and when this happens your body isn’t able to give you the proper signals to let you know when you’re full. You don’t necessarily need those signals if you’re eating a pre-portioned snack, but if you have the ability to eat as much as you want of something, it’s really easy to overeat when you weren’t truly hungry in the first place.
3) Eating every few hours boosts your metabolism.
The theory here is that your body burns energy when digesting food so the more frequently you eat, the more calories you’ll burn. There’s no actual proof that this one is true and in fact there have been studies that shown that it all boils down to how much you’re eating, not how often. (source)
Eating small, frequent meals can also have a negative effect because your body gets used to this constant supply of energy which makes it less likely that your your body will even burn fat for energy. There’s also the effect of insulin. Every time you eat, insulin is released so that it can deliver sugar from your bloodstream to your cells (for energy) or to your liver/muscle for storage. Whatever sugar is left is repackaged into a triglyceride and stored as fat. When you’re continuously eating throughout the day your insulin levels are constantly elevated, which makes your body more readily store fat.
According to Ayurveda, three meals a day is ideal for a healthy digestion and proper assimilation of nutrients. If you’re eating every couple of hours you’re constantly asking your body to restart the digestive process, which can actually impair digestion and cause a host of issues including constipation and malabsorption of nutrients.
4) Your blood sugar levels stays balanced.
It’s true that eating every 2-3 hours can keep your blood sugar levels balanced, but you have to be eating the right snacks for this to work and you can balance your blood sugar just as easily with 3 meals a day if you’re choosing the right balance of protein, fat, carbs and fiber. I recently read Body Love by Kelly Levque and I really resonated with her approach to having 3 meals a day with the right combo of nutrients so that they keep you full for 4-6 hours. This not only keeps your blood sugar balanced but it allows your body time to complete the first phase of digestion before adding more food to the mix (see above).
I found that when I was eating 5-6 small meals a day I was eating out of habit or by the clock rather than tuning into my body and eating when I was actually hungry. I rarely felt satisfied with the smaller meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner and I was leaning on snacky foods in between my regular meals. And these snack foods were easy to overeat because I work from home and my pantry is right there filled with all the goodies. One handful of trail mix or granola often led to 4-5.
Nowadays I have moved away from the 5-6 small meals a day approach. I currently eat 3 meals a day with one snack if I need it. At first it felt weird to let myself get hungry, but the more I tuned in I was able to read my body’s cues.
Real hunger comes on slowly and it is physical. You might experience difficulty concentrating, stomach growling, a hollow feeling in your stomach, crankiness or a slight headache. True hunger isn’t just a though, craving or urge to eat that comes on suddenly. It can be hard to tune into these subtle cues if you’ve been eating out of habit or by the clock for a long time, but it’s possible!
I’m not saying that eating 5-6 small meals a day is bad or that eating only 3 meals a day is the key to weight loss or weight management. I have several friends who consider themselves grazers (eating 5-6 mini meals a day) and this approach works great for them.
Overall, I think it’s important to look at your current eating habits and ask yourself if they’re working for you. For me, I realized that 5/6 small meals a day wasn’t a good approach. I found that I was often times eating out of habit or boredom, overeating snacks and not really listening to my body’s hunger cues. By switching to the 3 meals a day approach I feel more in tune with my body, my meals are more satisfying because they’re larger and I’m actually hungry when I eat them (hunger is the best sauce). I also feel relieved that I don’t have to constantly think about food all time. It’s amazing to go on a trip and feel like I don’t have to pack any snacks!
On top of all of this, I’ve also been learning more about the benefits of intermittent fasting, which is something I’ve started experimenting with a little as well. If you’re interested, I’m happy to do a full post about my experience with it.
So tell me, what eating style works for you? 3 meals a day, 5/6 meals a day or something completely different?