Rule 6. Quantity of meals
According to studies, three meals daily are ideal for long-term weight control and well-being. This rule exists in many cultures and traditions, though two meals are also traditional.
How many meals should you have a day? The advice to increase your food intake is widespread; however in the long run it works against you. Modern people face a lot of stress and a busy lifestyle, which demand time and attention. The advice to count calories and have between five to six regular meals is time-consuming. This split meals method does not have advantages over two or three meals, though countless myths support it, which will be discussed.
The advice to increase your food intake is widespread; however in the long run it works against you. Counting calories and using the split meal method of five to six regular meals is time-consuming.
Eat enough food to fill yourself up, so you are not thinking about food during your working day. After all, when refueling, you fill up the whole tank and not just five liters. It saves both time and health!
How did the problem arise?
Initially, the method of split meals as a therapeutic diet was developed for patients with the diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, such as peptic ulcer, gastroesophageal reflux, and cholecystectomy, as well as for patients recovering after surgery. It was pretty reasonable.
Recently, the method of split meals arose due to the wrong assumption that increasing the frequency of meals can accelerate metabolism. However, scientific studies show that no acceleration occurs and the energy taken from food depends on the daily calorie intake and not on the number of meals. Indeed, the myth of taming hunger, which is just a way of slowing the appetite, contributes significantly to the tale of the benefits of split meals. This is an unhealthy approach, which only indulges our desire to eat.
If we look at the data from scientific research, we can see that over several months there is no difference between three and six meals with the same number of calories. So frequent meals do not improve health such as weight, satiety, and health indicators. However, if we take several years, we can see a clear connection 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 does this happen? As usual, it’s all about calories and habits. It’s hard to control the exact calorie intake over many years. Stress, overload, and fatigue lead to a decrease in conscious control, and our habits start to rule our diet. Eating five or six times a day makes overeating more likely thaneating two or three times a day. Indeed, it is essential to understand that in the short-term, any diet, even an absurd one, can lead to some results, solely due to the greater attention on nutrition. Remember, restricting access to food is more physiological than just reducing the number of calories.
However, the question is, why do so many nutritionists talk about a method of split meals, and so many people say they have lost weight by it? The answer is simple: people always take the advice to eat more rather than 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).
How does it affect health?
Frequent meals only work in the short 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 daily, so any stress or fatigue is enough to stop this process. Losing weight quickly is easy on any diet, but keeping to the desired weight for 5–10 years is more complicated. After a while, the control over the calculation of calories weakens, and the habit of eating often remains, leading to weight gain.
The split meals disturb the normal functioning of the hunger-satiety system. Despite that, split meals decrease hunger, and 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, even a fixation on it, like 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 dominates your life. Remember that food serves you, not you serve food.
You don’t lose weight. Scientific studies show that increasing the frequency of meals, even up to 9–10 times a day, with the same daily calorie intake does not help lose weight. If you are prone to overeating, then with 5–6 meals, you will eat much more than with three single meals.
Frequent thoughts about food, even a fixation on it, like 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 dominates your life.
Lack of flexibility. Getting used to the strict framework of meals with short gaps can be difficult if we have to skip meals due to the changes in our work schedule.
Impaired work of some hormones. Prolonged usage of split meals can lead to increased insulin resistance and decreased levels of ghrelin and growth hormone. The valuable properties of the ghrelin hormone include the protection of the heart and kidneys, increased neurogenesis, and an antidepressant effect.
The optimal number of meals per day should be four meals for children, three or four for women, and two or three for men. Increasing the frequency to more than three meals a day for healthy people does not have any health benefits and does not contribute to weight loss. For those who eat often or chaotically, regulating meal quantity allows them 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 certain diseases of the gastrointestinal tract. It is ideal for professional athletes who need a lot of calories due to intense training. Please note that people visiting the gym three or 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 pre-schoolers and 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; for people with evening nutritional regimens, they are dinner and supper. Two meals per day are typical of many traditional cultures from East to West. The ancient Greeks ate two times a day — 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 three meals a day for some women may be a better strategy, considering their hormonal peculiarities.
Increasing the frequency of meals, even up to 9–10 times a day, with the same daily calorie intake does not help lose weight. If you are prone to overeating, then with 5–6 meals you will eat much more than with three single meals.
One meal a day. 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 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 to become a monk 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 a variant as a fasting day and use it once or twice a week. Some biohackers are fans of such a diet, but we cannot recommend it to a broader 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 how the stomach works. A stomach has 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 without feeling full. If you start eating less, the receptors’ sensitivity increases so less food gives a feeling of fullness. Studies have shown that adaptation to changes in volumes of food consumed takes about four weeks on average.
The natural overstretched stomach does not exist. The mechanism is the same as giving up eating salt — at first, everything becomes tasteless. Still, after a couple of weeks, the taste buds restore their sensitivity, so you start tasting again. Don’t be afraid to stretch your stomach, just like you aren’t afraid to stretch your bladder. The stomach is a muscular organ; it can grow 4–5 times and return to its standard size, which lets us eat a lot in one meal.
Variability. It is not necessary to keep strictly to a fixed number of meals. You can eat more if you have an intense workout on a particular day. Similarly, you can skip a meal if you have a day with low physical activity.
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. Attempts to use food to cheer yourself up can lead to eating disorders and other health problems. Using food to improve your mood can only make your sugar swing sway and unbalance your mood.
Sleepiness after eating is associated either with an afternoon cortisol decrease or a large number of carbohydrates. In the first case, you can have lunch later; with the latter, add more protein to the meal.
Heaviness after a hearty meal. A feeling of heaviness after eating has several reasons. The first is the sensitivity of the mechanoreceptors of the stomach, which we have already discussed. The second is high-speed eating. It must take you no less than 20 minutes to eat it if it’s a meal. You must eat slowly. The third reason is insufficient chewing. Chew your food thoroughly and do not swallow large pieces.
Sleepiness after eating is associated either with an afternoon cortisol decrease or a large number of carbohydrates. In the first case, you can have lunch later; with the latter, 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 acid-base balance. If food exposure is too frequent and especially has acid + sugar combinations, such as 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. Studies show that athletes still gain muscle bulk, even in a narrow food window, after having two meals a day.
Think less about food and save energy. Fewer meals give you much more flexibility (you need not plan 5 or 6 meals), less washing of plates, containers, and fewer thoughts about when and where to eat. The less you think about food, the better for you.
Eat more seriously. Remember the variety when reducing the number of meals. Feel free to add a salad with your meal and have fruit and nuts with tea, to make your food diverse and complex. Remember that the fewer times you eat, the more varied your food should be, to stop you from thinking about food until the next meal.
Children and snacks. Children older than eighteen months need not eat more than four times a day. Often parents are constantly trying to arrange snacks for their children. They offer crackers to encourage them to chew better, juice so as not to be dehydrated, or sweets to please them. They justify their actions by thinking that all this is useful for their children’s growth. There is no reliable scientific evidence that children’s snacking improves their health indicators (when added to their four meals daily). With snacks, children often consume more calories than during main meals.
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