Rule 6. Quantity of meals
According to studies, three meals a day are ideal for long-term weight control and well-being. This rule exists in many cultures and traditions, the same as two meals are also traditional.
How many meals a day you should have? Increasing the number of food intake is a popular advice but in the long run it works against you. Modern people face a lot of stress and competing tasks, which demand both the time and attention. The advice to count calories and have from five to six full regular meals, as the method of split meals requires, is time-consuming. This method does not have advantages over the method of two or three meals though countless myths, which we are going to discuss, support it.
BREAK: Increasing the number of food intake is a popular advice but in the long run it works against you. The advice to count calories and have from five to six full regular meals, as the method of split meals requires, is at least time-consuming.
Eat enough food to feel full and not think about food, and calmly get down to your business. After all, you fuel the tank up full and not by five liters per a refueling? It saves both time and health!
Initially, the method of split meals as a therapeutic diet was developed for patients with the diseases of gastrointestinal tract (peptic ulcer, gastroesophageal reflux, cholecystectomy, etc.), as well as for patients recovering after surgery. And it was quite reasonable.
In our times, the method of split meals arose on the wrong assumption that increasing the frequency of meals can accelerate metabolism. But the scientific studies showed that no acceleration occurs, and the energy taken from food depends on the daily calorie intake and not on the number of meals. Certainly, the myth of taming hunger, which actually is just a way of slacking the appetite, contributes greatly to the myth of split meals benefits. In fact, this is an unhealthy approach, only indulging our desire to eat.
If we look at the data of scientific research, then we can see that in the term of several months there is no difference between three and six meals with the same number of calories, i.e. frequent meals do not improve health (weight, satiety, health indicators). But if we take a several years period, then we can see a clear dependence between the number of meals and health. Those who eat two times a day are prone to weight loss, those who eat three times a day keep up their weight, and those who eat more often than three times a day have a steady tendency to gain weight with age.
Why it happens? As usual, it's all about calories and habits. It’s hard to control the exact calorie intake for years. Stress, overload, fatigue lead to a decrease in conscious control, and our habits start to rule our diet. By eating five or six times a day we make overeating more probable compared to eating two or three times a day. Certainly, it is important to understand that in the short-term, any diet, even absurd one, can lead to some results, solely due to the greater attention to nutrition. Remember - to restrict access to food is more physiological than just to cut the number of calories.
However, the question is, why do so many nutritionists talk about method of split meals and so many people say that they have lost weight on it? The answer is simple: people take the advice to eat more always better than the advice to eat less. In addition, frequent meals reduce the level of ghrelin, which brings temporary relief. However, this is not beneficial in the long run (See the chapter Eat when hungry).
Frequent meals do not work in the long run. Daily monitoring of cooking five or six meals with calorie counting is very time-consuming. Even without this, a person makes from 300 to 400 nutritional decisions per day, so any stress or fatigue is enough to stop this process. Losing weight quickly is easy on any diet, but keeping weight for 5-10 years is more difficult. After a while, the control over the calculation of calories weakens, and the habit to eat often remains, which leads to weight gain.
The split meals disturb the normal functioning of hunger-satiety system. Despite that split meals decrease hunger, a feeling of satiety suffers along with this. Three meals a day help to support a more stable feeling of satiety.
Obsession with food. Frequent thoughts about food, fixing on it, counting calories can easily lead to eating disorders. A healthy attitude to food is when you think about it, but it is not the main reason that structures and governs your life. Never forget that food serves you, not you serve the food.
You do not lose weight. The scientific studies show that the increasing of meals frequency even up to 9-10 times a day with the same daily calorie intake does not help lose weight. If you are prone to overeat, then with 5-6 times overeating you will eat much more than with three single episodes of overeating.
BREAK: Frequent thoughts about food, fixing on it, counting calories can easily lead to eating disorders. A healthy attitude to food is when you think about it, but it is not the main reason that structures and governs your life.
Lack of flexibility. Getting used to the strict framework of meals with short gaps we can suffer if we have to skip the meals due to the changes of the work schedule.
Impaired work of some hormones. Prolonged usage of split meals can lead to the increased insulin resistance, the decreased levels of ghrelin and growth hormone. The useful properties of the ghrelin hormone include the protection of heart and kidneys, the increased neurogenesis, the antidepressant effect, and others.
The optimal number of meals per day will be four meals for children, three or four meals for women, and two or three meals for men. Increasing the frequency of meals over three for healthy people does not have health benefits and does not contribute to weight loss. For those who eat often or chaotically, the regulation of meals quantity allows to create a simple and easy-to-understand diet that will support them. So, let's discuss the following dietary regimens:
More than four meals. This regimen is suitable for children or can be used as a therapeutic diet for the certain diseases of gastrointestinal tract. It is suitable for professional athletes who need a lot of calories due to the intense training. Please note that people visiting gym three of four times a week with one-hour workouts do not need the increased frequency of meals.
Four meals a day. It is suitable for toddlers and preschoolers as well as for athletes recovering from illness.
Three meals a day. This is the standard frequency of meals (breakfast, dinner and supper). In general, it will suit most people.
Two meals a day. These are breakfast and dinner, and for people with evening nutritional regimen they are dinner and supper. Two meals per day are typical for many traditional cultures, from East to West. So, the ancient Greeks ate two times – they had dinner (ariston) and supper (deipnon). The strategy of eating two times a day is suitable both for losing weight and keeping it stable. Most men tolerate it easily but for some women three meals a day may be better strategy taking into account their hormonal peculiarities.
BREAK: The increasing of meals frequency even up to 9-10 times a day with the same daily calorie intake does not help lose weight. If you are prone to overeat, then with 5-6 times overeating you will eat much more than with three single episodes of overeating.
One meal a day. Actually, this approach represents a radical reduction of the food window to one hour per day (23: 1). Animal studies have shown that this method slows down the aging process in mice. Traditionally, such a diet was common among Roman legionnaires (the warrior’s diet) or Buddhist monks (He who shaves his head and beard in order to become a Shaman and receive the law of Buddha, (must) forego all worldly wealth, and beg a sufficiency of food for his support, eating one meal in the middle of the day, The Sūtra of the Forty-two Sections). We can consider such variant as a fasting day and use it ones or twice a week. Some biohackers are fans of such diet, but we cannot recommend it for a wide audience.
How to follow the rule? Ideas and tips
Smoothness and adaptation. Sometimes the number of meals per day is just a habit but more often it depends on the work of stomach. A stomach has the mechanoreceptors that respond to its stretching degree caused by food. Their sensitivity may vary. The more food you eat, the easier it is for you to eat it without a feeling of fullness. If you start eating less, then the receptors sensitivity increases, and a larger amount of food causes a feeling of stomach overfilling. The studies have shown that adaptation to changes in volumes of food consumed takes about four weeks on average.
The real overstretched stomach does not exist. The mechanism is the same as with the giving up eating salt - at first everything becomes tasteless, but after a couple of weeks the taste buds restore their sensitivity so you start feeling every taste again. Do not be afraid to stretch your stomach, aren’t you afraid to stretch your bladder? The stomach is a muscular organ, it can grow by 4-5 times and return back to its normal size. And this lets us eat a lot at one meal.
Variability. It is not necessary at all to keep strictly the fixed number of meals. If you have an intense workout this day, you can eat more. And you have a day with low physical activity you can pretty skip a meal.
The food is not for the mood. Sometimes people switch to more frequent meals to cheer themselves up. But it’s important to understand that such an approach is dangerous and attempts to cheer up with food can lead to eating disorders and other health problems. Using eating to improve your mood can only make your sugar swing sway and unbalance your mood.
BREAK: Sleepiness after eating is associated either with an afternoon decrease in cortisol or with a large amount of carbohydrates. In the first case, you can have lunch later; in the second, add more protein to the meal.
Heaviness after a hearty meal. Heaviness after eating has several reasons. The first is the sensitivity of the mechanoreceptors of the stomach, which we have already talked about. The second is the high-speed eating. If a meal is big, then it must take you not less than 20 minutes. You must eat slowly. The third reason is insufficient chewing. Chew your food thoroughly and do not swallow large pieces.
Sleepiness after eating. Most often, sleepiness after eating is associated either with an afternoon decrease in cortisol or with a large amount of carbohydrates. In the first case, you can have lunch later; in the second, add more protein to the meal and it will not make you sleepy.
Take care of your teeth. Each meal is an acid attack on the teeth. Rinse your mouth thoroughly after each meal. Tooth enamel softens when the acidity in the mouth drops below 5.5 pH, it takes up to an hour to restore the acidbase balance. If food exposure is too frequent and especially has acid + sugar combinations (juices or soft drinks), then the natural saliva defense does not work. Remember that you should not brush your teeth immediately after eating (especially after fruit)!
You will not lose muscle bulk. As studies showed, athletes gain muscle bulk perfectly even in a narrow food window having two meals a day.
Think less about food and save energy. Fewer meals give you much more flexibility (you don’t need to plan 5 or 6 meals), less washing plates, containers, less thoughts when and where to eat. The less you think about food, the better for you.
Eat more seriously. Reducing the number of meals, do not forget about the variety. Feel free to combine a salad, fruit and nuts with tea, make your food diverse and complex. Remember that the less times you eat, the more thoroughly you have to eat, so as not to think about food until the next meal.
Children and split meals. Children older than eighteen months do not need fto eat more than four times a day. Often parents are constantly trying to arrange the snacks for their children. They suggest crackers so that the teeth are better cut then some juice so as not to be dehydrated or just sweets to please. At the same time, they console themselves with thoughts that children are growing so everything will be used for growth. But there is no reliable scientific evidence that snacking in children improves their health indicators (added to four full meals a day). With snacks children often consume more calories than during main meals.