Which is better? 3 meals a day vs 5-6 mini meals

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.  

Which is better for Weight Loss -- 3 meals a day vs 5-6 mini meals?

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?

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?
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    1. Angelique Devold
      March 14, 2021 AT 6:57 am

      Oh wow I just happen to come across your site and made the kale sweet potato and goats cheese frittata. It was delicious and I am so excited about trying more yummy and healthy recipes. I love super foods and #eating like a bird# as people say I do. Awesome site!!! Keep me updated.

    2. Udita Joseph
      September 26, 2020 AT 5:56 pm

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience with this. I just started my weight loss journey and adopted calorie deficit with high protein and my calorie counting app suggested 5 meals and I worked with it for 3 weeks and I felt constantly hungry… One day, I just thought I’d have 3 meals… And I actually consumed lesser calories than before, felt fuller, energetic and as you said lesser work planning meals.
      Please do share your post on intermittent fasting

    3. Bindy Bitterman
      August 9, 2020 AT 10:36 am

      I am an 89year old woman in excellent health.Most of my mature life I have maintained a decent weight, but since retiring 5 years ago I find I want to eat several times between awaking(usually at 5 am, more or less) and lunch. Breakfast can be cereal plus single egg or egg (1 or 2) w/multi-grain toast. The mid-morning snack is fruit, usually, or salad w/mimimal dressing. I choose carefully.
      Now Ive been diagnosed “pre-
      diabetic” with medical advice to eat “regularly” (i.e., 3 meals a day) because, as you say, every time you eat you
      release insulin. Doc says “1 treat per day” tho with my age and good health, she
      cuts me some slack. I still get hunger pangs between breakfast and lunch only.

      Any recommendations or suggestions or ideas?

    4. Christine
      May 4, 2020 AT 3:17 pm

      Thanks for the idea. As I got older, started at age 4( I’m headed to 47), I don’t feel my stomach growl. I would start feeling numb. If I waited past the numbness I would get hangry. So for me eating 5 small meals a day is better. I just need to look at a healthy snack alternative.

    5. Rebecca
      April 30, 2020 AT 2:06 am

      I currently eat 3 big main meals and 2 snacks and I feel hungry all the time due to a medication that I am taking which has side effects of increased hunger. I have gained 12 kilos since being on this medication but 3 big meals a day wouldn’t do me. I need my snacks to tide me over. My snacks are healthy like a piece of fruit in the morning and a handful of nuts in the afternoon.

    6. Bec
      October 9, 2019 AT 6:07 am

      I’m so glad to see this , it makes total sense to go back to basics and eat 3 meals when hungry . Snacking too much( which I’ve tried ) I believe is not only bad for your teeth but leaves you feeling full all day long which is not fun . I eat two eggs and fruit for breakfast and this allows me to stretch right through apart from coffee until noon . This way like you said you can recognise hunger better .

      1. Brittany Mullins
        October 9, 2019 AT 1:08 pm

        I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed this post, Bec! Yes, I think it’s so important to listen to our own body cues on when we’re actually hungry!

    7. Kathy
      December 15, 2018 AT 7:42 pm

      Love this! I’ve been on your site before for recipes but actually came across this post when doing research for myself. I’ve recently lost a lot of weight and did it originally by eating about 5 meals a day. But in the past month my past eating disorder issues have reared their ugly head so I had been playing around with what works best for me. In my quest to consume more calories I realized that I like eating bigger, “more complete” looking meals. I was eating bigger breakfasts and wasn`t hungry for my morning snack. Before I was hungry before I even headed out the door. But lately because I’m eating less often I’m eating more at a time and my meals feel like actual meals. For myself, I think its because of my brain. If you give me a bowl of chia pudding for breakfast and then some toast with peanut butter for a snack later…I’m starved all morning. But if I eat the toast with the chia pudding? I’m full until I go on lunch break. Also, I feel like it gives me more freedom with my meals. Sometimes I look at recipes and their nutrition content and I’ll see, 400 calories and I’m like, ugh, what about my snacks? But now I’m like, oh I’ll either have to add something to that or eat more at one of my other meals. Does this make sense? Probably not. But does it trick my brain? Yep!

    8. Diana Lopes
      October 5, 2017 AT 1:19 pm

      Well, first of all I just have to say I loved this post! I’ve always been told that eating something every 3 hours is the best way to go, but I tried it several times and I never felt good about it, I constantly felt full, lazy, and (like you) always thinking about food and packing snacks wherever I went! Once I started the 3 meals a day I felt renewed, for me it’s way waaaaaay better!

    9. Hilary
      September 30, 2017 AT 1:32 am

      I tried the small meals and it did not work for me. I do much better with two large meals and a snack and am definitely interested in IF.

    10. Les @ The Balanced Berry
      September 29, 2017 AT 2:30 pm

      LOVE this post Brittany. I have had a very similar experience. I’ve found eating for satiety instead of eating because it’s “time” has given me so much more peace around food.

    11. Ashley | FIt Mitten Kitchen
      September 29, 2017 AT 12:38 pm

      I can totally relate to switching over from 5-6 meals to 3-4. Sometimes I still feel the urge to snack, but like you said I think it is out of habit. And if I do focus on eating a substantial amount of food to feel full, I feel like I can make it through at least 3 hours without needing to grab something to eat. Finding those hunger cues again can be really important. And yes, would love to hear about your intermittent fasting as well!

      1. Brittany Mullins
        October 27, 2017 AT 1:39 pm

        I can totally relate to this as well Ashely because I definitely still have urges to snack sometimes too. But I’ve noticed that they’re usually out of boredom or because I’m stressed. I’m working on a post about intermittent fasting now!

    12. Adriane
      September 29, 2017 AT 9:57 am

      I’m struggling with HA and hashimotos and find three meals and two snacks feels best for my body and health issues.

    13. Tara | Treble in the Kitchen
      September 29, 2017 AT 6:46 am

      Good post!! When it comes to digestion, I learned in a low FODMAP/IBS seminar that the colon completes migrating motor complexes (almost like a cleansing movement) every 90 minutes. In order for this to occur your body must be in a fasting state, so for people with digestive issues, it may be best to have 3-4 hours between each meal so that the body can complete these migrating motor complexes. Clearly, different things work for different people, but I think you bring up some really great points in this post! 🙂 I hope you are doing well!!!! 🙂

      1. Brittany Mullins
        October 27, 2017 AT 1:40 pm

        Wow! That’s really interesting, Tara. And it makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing!

    14. Jill
      September 29, 2017 AT 1:27 am

      Great post! I appreciate that you encourage others to find what works for them. All too often we get caught up in fads rather than recognizing what works best for our body! There is definitely no one size fits all! ❤️

    15. Bonnie
      September 28, 2017 AT 10:11 pm

      Have been adjusting to Invisalign braces, which has me switching from a grazer to a 3 meals per day. Now have to get portion size under control…for some reason, the thought of not being able to graze “whenever I want” makes me so nervous! Just started, but am hoping to shed a few pounds in the process!

    16. Meaghan
      September 28, 2017 AT 8:30 pm

      Thanks for a great, thought provoking article! I appreciate how you state your opinion without judging others. I personally do better with 4-5 small meals/snacks. My body doesn’t like huge meals and needs more frequent nourishment. That’s the beauty of this topic-it’s all about listening to your body! Thanks Brittany!

    17. lauren
      September 28, 2017 AT 7:49 pm

      Love what you said–it’s so true–I intermittent fast most days for 12-14 hours—I don’t get crazy with it. Used to think snacking was the answer but I also read Kelly’s book and had a consult with her and I feel 1000 times better by eating meals that keep me full for a long time–and waiting for the hunger cues. My body had forgotten what it was like to be hungry!!! Would love a post on your IF experience thus far.

    18. Bita
      September 28, 2017 AT 3:54 pm

      Hi Brittany, you make some very good points. I personally am a happy snacker. My snacks are healthy and could be considered mini meals I guess. I have a real breakfast and a real dinner. During the day a few snacks works for me best with my schedule and lifestyle. When I do have lunch plans I choose big healthy salads like the ones you share and you are right… they do keep me full for several hours. Thanks for the perspective and all your great salad recipes.

    19. Emily @ Pizza & Pull-ups
      September 28, 2017 AT 3:32 pm

      Thanks for sharing, I have always been a bit of a snacker, but I have noticed that when I have a full, satisfying meal, it will frequently take me to my next meal without me getting hungry or needing a snack. I have been trying to really think about if I am actually hungry, or just accustomed to snacking at that time, before reaching for something.

    20. Katy
      September 28, 2017 AT 3:29 pm

      This is an awesome post, I’ve always loved having 3 big meals veruses loads of smaller ones where you never feel quite satisified. However I am really concerned with the IF side of things, given that you have previously mentioned having hypothalamic amenorroerhea on the blog. I would urge you to look into the research on IF, women and periods. A lot of IF protocols work best/are designed for men and very often not a good thing for a woman to be doing if her body wants to feel it is a safe enviroment for a baby. Just some thoughts you might want to look into.

    21. Alexandra Panas
      September 28, 2017 AT 2:24 pm

      I agree that three meals a day works better for me than mini-meals. A few months ago I tried whole 30, and while I’m not a big fan of how restrictive the diet was, my main takeaway was that if you are preparing truly satisfying meals then three meals/day is enough. I used to snack ALL the time throughout the day, now I just have something every now and then when I feel like I need something extra.

    22. Jenn Pea and Crayons
      September 28, 2017 AT 2:13 pm

      YES! THIS! I’ve found that this is 100% true for me and I don’t do well on the mini meal schedule at all, despite everything we learned in nutrition school and all the things trainers have told me, I just can’t do it. If it happens organically then it’s okay, but if I made it a daily thing I’d be packing in too many extra calories and always have food in my face. Great post girly!

    23. Janet Fazio
      September 28, 2017 AT 1:41 pm

      3 meals a day with a snack if I need it works best for me. I find that if I eat enough protein, and drink plenty of water, I never reach the hangry stage. I do try to go 12-14 hours between dinner and breakfast. Not sure if it helps or not though.

    24. Laurie Byrne
      September 28, 2017 AT 1:17 pm

      I recently just switched from “mini-meals” to 3/day and my body is thanking me. I’ve actually dropped a couple of pounds, have more energy and have stopped looking at the clock to see if it’s time for a snack! I eat when I’m hungry (which typically lands at meal time) and have an OCCASIONAL little snack (apple, power ball, small handful of almonds) if I’m hungry but the next meal is two hours away. 🙂

    25. Jennifer
      September 28, 2017 AT 12:27 pm

      eating 3 meals a day works better for me than the 5-6 small meals, also. I don’t feel as bloated & my body has the time to digest food. I’m so glad I learned this. I’ve also lost more weight making this & a few other small changes. Have had people comment that I look like I’ve thinned out some. Just wish my chubby cheeks would start to follow suit! Ugh.

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