How Often Should We Eat?

- POSTED ON: Jul 10, 2011

For decades now, the conventional advice from trainers and weight loss specialists has been this:

"Eat three meals a day plus two snacks."

The big question is whether or not it's true.

And the answer (drum roll and envelope please) is ...
... sometimes. But not always. ...

Many people do absolutely great on three meals a day with no snacks, and sometimes, on some days -- (gasp) -- even two.

See, the conventional advice was built upon the "truth" that "grazing" is always a better eating strategy for weight loss than eating three (or, god forbid, two) "solid" meals a day. Eating three meals and two snacks was supposed to keep your blood sugar even throughout the day, keeping cravings at bay.

Well, maybe.
But the truth of the matter is that people are far more variable and individual than we often acknowledge. And there's a downside to the "five meals a day" theory, a downside which may affect some people more than others.

For one thing, eating every two hours guarantees that your insulin is going to go up five times a day instead of, say, three. For many people, that means more hunger, not less.

Insulin is not only the fat storage hormone, it's also the hunger hormone. In fact, the whole "Carbohydrate Addicts Diet" got started when one of its creators, a (then) very-overweight Rachel Heller, found that she experienced a lot less hunger on one particularly busy day when she "forgot" to eat.

Three meals a day -- each with a beginning and an end -- is making a comeback as a weight-loss strategy, snacking be damned. Celebrity nutritionist JJ Virgin now advocates eating three meals a day, the first meal within an hour of waking up and the last meal at least three hours before bed. And recent research has demonstrated-- at least in rats -- that "intermittent fasting" actually has some major health benefits.

The point here is not that the old information was wrong and the new information is right.

The point is ....
that there are huge individual differences in how we respond to food, and no one strategy -- including the "five meals a day" strategy
-- works for everyone.

We need to stop blindly following conventional wisdom and start paying attention to our individual differences when it comes to weight loss.
(In fact, that's not a bad strategy to follow for everything, but that's another column.)

Ellen Langner, the Harvard psychologist, puts it brilliantly in her book "Mindfulness," when she says that "certainty" is the enemy of mindfulness. When we blindly follow a strategy, for weight loss or for anything else, we often stop paying attention to the individual cues that tell us whether it's the right thing to do in our particular situation.

"Certainty is a cruel mindset," she wrote.
"It is uncertainty that we need to embrace, particularly about our health.
If we do so, the payoff is that we create choices
and the opportunity to exercise control over our lives."

So if three meals and two snacks per day works for you, great. Keep it up and carry on! But if it's not working, don't assume it's because there's something wrong with you. It just might be that you need to try a different strategy.

And three meals a day -- each with a beginning and an end point, and with no "snacking" in between -- might be one technique worth trying.

Leave me a comment.

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Existing Comments:

On Jul 10, 2011 TexArk wrote:
I am currently trying to figure this one out for myself. The best habit I developed from trying NoS was to give up the snacking. I definitely do better with no snacks, but now I am experimenting with 2 meals instead of 3. I have to keep my calorie count so low that at times it seems more comfortable to have two meals. If I wake up hungry, I will have a big breakfast, and I have always been a breakfast eater. But...I think I do better if I just postpone the eating until later....breakfast for lunch! I can do that now that I am retired. You are correct in that we just have to figure this out for ourselves. Many have opinions about intermittent fasting and leptin reset which seem to be polar opposites. For now, I am off snacks and sometimes have only 2 meals a day. Another self experiment....

On Jul 10, 2011 Dr. Collins wrote:
             TexArk, I've also noticed how so many "Experts" have opposing opinions about how what eating behavior is the best for all. I'm a big believer in self-experimentation, and for making the way we choose to eat, work for us individually. Despite many intense efforts toward that goal ... over many years ..., I've never been able to successfully condition my own body to a three-meal-a-day plan. I've learned that I actually dislike eating large-volume, full-plate meals, and my body prefers to eat tiny amounts more frequently. Personally, I'm fine with a tiny dinner, or with trading dinner for a couple of "tidbits" aka snacks, during the day, but I feel totally deprived if I miss out on breakfast or lunch.

On Jul 11, 2011 Karen925 wrote:
TexArk one of the things I learned from NoS was ditching the snacks. I like the time it frees up in my day as well as the larger meals. Sometimes, if I get hungry I will eat Kale Chips, 1/4 oz of nuts, or 1 tsp of coconut oil. Big mistake *for me* was drinking my calories (i.e. milk or the like, just got hungry quickly while boosting my calorie count). Keeping a journal has been extremely helpful in figuring my personal plan. Very easy for me to think I see a trend from 1 or 2 data points:-)

On Jul 11, 2011 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Karen, It is so great that you and TexArk were both able to make the No S, "No Snacking" rule into a habit. I tried and tried, but was unsuccessful at it. I do disagree with the No S "okay" of drinking calories between meals, and except for a cup of sugar-free cocoa occasionally, I don't drink my calories either at meals or between meals.

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