You might have heard some experts say you need to eat six small meals a day to “stoke your metabolic fire”. You might have heard other experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day and should be the biggest, whereas dinner should be the smallest.
You’ve probably heard other experts say you should never eat after 7:00 pm or 8:00 pm or 9:54 pm… And, unfortunately, you’ve likely heard other experts say you should only eat one large meal per day because that’s what our ancestors did when they were cavemen.
So what the heck are you actually supposed to do?!
Fortunately, the truth is far simpler than many make it out to be: you can eat however many meals you like, at whatever time of day you like, as long as your total daily calories are in check.
In general, it does not matter if you prefer three square meals a day, six small meals each day, or twenty-five hummingbird-sized meals a day; if your total calorie intake is in line with your goals, your results will be the same. From a practical standpoint though, it doesn’t make sense to eat twenty-five tiny meals, so we don’t recommend it.
For your knowledge on the topic however, research examining the effect of meal frequency on metabolism found no difference in net metabolic effect as long as daily calories were equivalent.
To support your energy throughout the day though, for optimal appetite control, and to supply amino acids needed to promote muscle growth and/ or prevent loss it is a good idea to consume a solid (20~30 g) protein source every 4 hours that you are awake.
Having said all of that, once you’ve established which meal frequency works best for you and your individual preferences, it is generally helpful to stick to that schedule as closely as possible. Reason being, your body’s hunger hormones (leptin, ghrelin, peptide YY, etc.) can be “trained” so you get hungry at similar times so long as you stick to a consistent eating schedule. This can be very helpful, especially if you’re trying to lose weight, so you’ll know ahead of time when you’ll be hungry and can plan for it.
For example, if you regularly eat lunch around 12:30 pm you’ll notice yourself getting hungry around that time every day.
Keep in mind that this “training process” takes time – it can take up to 2-4 weeks of consistent behaviour, so don’t expect your body to adapt after a day or two or starting your new diet. Give it a fair chance, be consistent, and over the course of your first month you’ll notice your hunger kicking in right on schedule. Just make sure to keep your eating schedule similar on the weekends as well.
If you’re wondering what the best meal frequency is… stop. Stop looking for “the best”. Everyone wants “the best” diet, “the best” workout, “the best” meal plan, ect… There is no “best”.
Because the only true “best” meal frequency (and plan, overall) is the one you can stick to consistently over the long haul.
So take 15 minutes out of your day to sit down, look at your schedule, and plan a meal frequency for the day you think will work best for you. Give it a fair shot (~30 days) ; if it work, great! Stick with it. If not, try a new one. Again, the most important thing is hitting your calories on a consistent basis.
Whichever meal frequency allows you to do that as easily as possible is the best one for you.