How often should we eat?

I came across an interesting study recently, which assessed the frequency of eating in individuals of ‘normal weight’, or who had lost weight and were maintaining that weight loss, or were ‘overweight’. The number of meals eaten in the day was essentially the same across the groups. However, for snacks it was different: Overall, those of normal weight and those who had lost weight ate more snacks than those deemed overweight. In other words, in this study, increased eating frequency was associated with lower weight. The authors of this study conclude that eating three meals a day with two snacks in between ‘may be important in weight loss maintenance.’

The suggestion here is that more frequent eating can help weight control. This may be the case (as I’ll explain later), but this study most certainly does not prove that. And that’s because it’s epidemiological in nature, and can only tell us that increased frequency of eating is associated with lower weight. The increased snacking may not have caused the lower weight. It might be that naturally heavier individuals are more likely to eschew snacks because they believe this will help them lose weight or reduce the risk of weight gain.

However, having said that, I find in practice that some well-timed snacking on the right sort of food (more on that later) can make a huge difference to someone’s attempts to eat healthily and lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

For some people the time that elapses between meals is just too long. This is usually more of a problem between lunch and dinner than between breakfast and lunch. Some people can eat lunch at 12.30 and not sit down to dinner until 8.00 or later. By this time hunger can be at such a level that it makes healthy eating almost impossible. Starchy carbs such as bread, pasta and rice are normally the order of the day at this point, perhaps preceded by some unhealthy snacking (e.g. crisps/potato chips) and followed with a none-too-healthy dessert. Also, rampant hunger can drive people to drink more alcohol than they ordinarily would. It’s a mess, isn’t it?

All of these issues can usually be circumvented with a snack of something sustaining in the late afternoon. The snack of choice? I think nuts. Their relatively protein-rich and slow sugar-releasing nature give them real staying power in terms of appetite suppression, in contrast to fruit which tends not to do the job nearly as well. For those who are allergic to nuts, seeds (e.g. pumpkin seeds) are a decent alternative.

However, snacks are not in some way mandatory. If you find you can go from meal to meal without getting unduly hungry, and can eat healthily and easily at meal times without conscious restraint, then snacking is unlikely to add much for you.

Also, be alive to the fact that how often you eat in a day can vary according to appetite – some days you may just need more food or more frequent eating than others.

For most people this comes out at 2 or 3 meals a day with 1-2 snacks a day. There are no hard and fast rules. The important thing is to eat enough of the right foods frequently enough to avoid getting ravenously hungry. This is what makes healthy eating (and weight control for that matter) easy and sustainable.

References:

1. Bachman JL, et al. Eating frequency is higher in weight loss maintainers and normal-weight individuals than in overweight individuals. J Am Diet Asso 2011;111(11):1730-1734

16 Responses to How often should we eat?

  1. Cordier 25 November 2011 at 12:45 am #

    Snacking is a good thing but the difficulty for some people perhaps is to know at what instant we feel satieted during the snacking time(“mindful eating”)…

  2. Kris 25 November 2011 at 2:57 am #

    I definitely agree with the fact that ravenous hunger can make it harder to keep your next meal a healthy one.

    But I’ve been vary of recommending snacks after seeing a few studies (also epidemiological, but statistically significant) where increased eating frequency was associated with highly raised chances of colorectal cancer.

    I discussed this here: http://www.kriskris.com/eating-frequency-and-colon-cancer/

    I’m curious about your thoughts on those particular studies?

  3. John Jeffrey 25 November 2011 at 3:47 am #

    Thanks for your very interesting article, It’s answered a few questions for my friends and I and pointed us to look at things from a different perspective.

    Keep up the good work.

    JJ

  4. Chris 25 November 2011 at 5:01 am #

    Agreed, how and when we eat could be as influential as how much we eat.

    “Breakfast like a King, lunch like a Prince, and dine like a Pauper,” .. ..

    .. .. is an old proverb and one that holds some virtue even if it is a bit short on explanation as may pertain to personal needs, metabolism or ‘constitution’.

    The brief proverb and your more involved explanation, Dr Briffa, are good reminders to pay attention to ‘patterns of eating.’

  5. Denise Taylor 25 November 2011 at 11:06 am #

    A useful reminder, after years of unhealthy eating I now see my body as in need of refuelling at regular intervals, and eat every 3 hours. So smaller meals, but more often. It’s helped me to lose 10 stone.

    What I used to do was snack on high carb foods – cakes and biscuits and these just made me eat more. Now I schedule in e.g 25g of almonds or a piece of chicken and some salad I rarely get cravings.

  6. John Walker 25 November 2011 at 11:47 am #

    One thing is bothering me. In most of the low carb literature, it states that lots of exercise although beneficial, is not necessary, and in any case, exercise will not help weight loss; merely serving to keep fitness levels high.

    Why then did a certain celebrity who rode a ‘rickshaw-bike’ from Edinburgh to London, for charity, lose almost 21 lbs? It’s almost certain he followed current ‘wisdom’ and loaded with carbs for energy. (Although he did suffer a lot from energy levels dipping.) It’s something of a puzzle to me.
    JW

  7. Andrea Turner 25 November 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    I would say that the focus should be more on eating only when hungry (but not starving) instead of timing. There are far too many experts who think they can dictate everything we do and when we do it. Snacking probably continues the habit of mindless eating. Nuts are definitely a sensible food. We had a bacon and scrambled egg breakfast at 9am (no toast, just bacon, eggs, butter and cream), then climbed the largest mountain in the Apennines with just a bottle of water and a small pack of nuts between us. Got home about 9pm and weren’t even hungry. The idea that you need carbs for energy or strenuous exercise certainly isn’t true for us. If we’d had cereal for breakfast we’d have been ravenous by 10am and would have had to turn back!

  8. newly paleo kris 25 November 2011 at 6:20 pm #

    Snacking (or lack thereof) was my greatest problem when I changed my eating habits three months ago. I often used to find myself ravenous and desperate in the beginning of eating paleo/WAPF, because the easy solutions I had been used to (e.g. a quick sandwich) were no longer an option, and preparing “proper” food just takes that extra bit longer.
    I have since learned to put a little more time into planning meals (and snacks) ahead and virtually always have some stew or soup on the stove, and some nutmeal or egg muffins prepared. Nuts are a wonderful snack indeed, but I find I need to soak and roast them to get rid of phytic acid, or else they’ll give me a stomach ache.

    At any rate, having a healthy snack at hand when I get hungry is what has really enabled me to spend the extra time on preparing quality food that I actually *want* to eat, instead of desperately *having* to eat something crappy because I have waited to long and find myself desperately starving while the intended healthy dinner still needs another hour in the oven.

  9. Sue 26 November 2011 at 12:56 am #

    I think if on a fat loss quest the lots of small meals may be the way to go. If you are on quite a low calorie amount the lots of mini meals may keep hunger at bay. Once at goal weight I think 3 meals is sufficient.

  10. Dennis Taylor 27 November 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    That study also noted they ate around 1800 cals which is hard for me to do when drinking so I’ve cut way back and try to log all food’s and calorie’s with how I feel. So far snacking works and skipping a meal just makes me eat more at the next meal, plus bigger breakfast makes more energy for the day.

  11. Daisy 29 November 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    What do you think of Intermittent Fasting, Dr. B?

  12. John Briffa 30 November 2011 at 11:11 am #

    Daisy

    I’m a qualified fan. See here http://www.drbriffa.com/2011/03/28/my-intermittent-fasting-experiment/

    John

  13. Alexandra 1 December 2011 at 2:04 am #

    I love forgeting about food for many hours at a time. My very low carb paleo diet allows me to go 5-12 hours without any hunger because I am using my stored body fat for fuel when I need it. If we place food in our mouth every couple hours, we deny ourselves the opportunity to burn that stored fat.
    My entire fat life, I ate about every 2-3 hours and was always hungry and never satisfied. Eating very low carb, high fat and average protein fuels me perfectly without ever needing a snack and I feel hungry just a couple times each day. 120+ lbs gone!

  14. climber 1 December 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    I’ve never had any weight issues but developed impaired glucose tolerance and reactive hypoglycaemia which was not controlled by very low carb Paleo style diet. My symptoms only improved (and did so within days!) when I reduced meal frequency from 5-6 to 2-3 per day. This was quite an amazing revelation to me, having believed for years that regular meals and snacks were the way to go. I have since then been reading on how the frequent eating puts a real strain on the pancreas both in terms of exocrine and endocrine function and it makes a lot of sense to me.

    Recently also started intermittent fasting. The freedom from “having to eat” (or my blood sugar will go too low), is fantastic.

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