Should you spread your calories over 3 meals, or stick to a lower frequency? If you’re trying to create a calorie deficit, it can be hard to know how often you should eat. Will a 3 meals a day diet plan work for weight loss, or is that simply another myth?
Let’s discuss this topic deeper as we look into the history and inspiration of the 3 meals a day diet, its benefits, whether there are any links to weight loss and health tips for this diet plan.
Where Did 3 Meals A Day Come From?
Eating 3 meals a day came about from many factors, including economic, religious, and socio-cultural beliefs. However, the concept originated from European settlers.
In ancient times, Romans would only take one meal around midday as it was economical and thought to be healthy. They believed this would allow your body enough time to metabolize the food, guaranteeing good digestion. Furthermore, to them, eating more than one meal a day was a form of gluttony.
Greeks would eat three meals a day, but there was no designation as breakfast, lunch, or supper/dinner; it was just the freedom to eat.
In the middle ages, people followed a monastic life where you couldn’t eat before the morning mass, and they could only eat meat for half the days of the year.
People began to conceptualize breakfast as the morning meal in the 17th Century. American natives would translate it as “break the nights fast”. By then, people in the aristocratic class were the only ones who had the privilege to take breakfast. The wealthy would consume coffee, tea, and other dishes such as scrambled eggs.
The Conception Of Lunch And Dinner
Two centuries later, the industrial revolution began, and people started taking breakfast and lunch to sustain them as they worked for over six hours. Breakfast was the pre-work meal, while lunch was the half-day meal. After work, many went home for a hearty meal(dinner), leading to the current habit of three meals.
Before the 19th Century, lunch was just a quick snack known as a “beever” or “noonshine”. Later on, it was “nuncheon”, then finally luncheon/ lunch. The revolution stayed on for long, which caused people to ingrain the idea of lunch into a routine.
Because the workers took their main meal at home after work hours, both middle and lower classes adopted this eating habit of taking three meals a day. Over the years, the three meals have been further defined as people could now eat toasted bread, instant coffee, and cereals for breakfast. Lunch and supper would always be hearty.
No scientific or biological history claims one should take three meals a day. It’s all a cultural pattern that has grown into a habit. Therefore scientific studies only try to prove whether eating 3 meals a day has benefits or is harmful.
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Why Should We Eat 3 Meals A Day?
Taking three meals a day has its benefits, such as:
- Control of appetite. You won’t have to overeat because you know when your next meal is instead of one or two meals that could offset your cues, causing you to overeat (2).
- Management of food intake.
- Good calorie distribution. If you know you’re only taking three meals a day, you can optimize your calorie count to ensure your intake of the right calories a day. Such would be beneficial, especially with calorie deficit and surplus.
- Better food choices. Such a diet plan allows you to plan and consume healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
The firm belief that three meals a day are healthy remains cultural. However, there is supporting epidemiological proof, highlighting three additional benefits regarding weight, cholesterol, and diabetes (14).
Lower Cholesterol Levels
One small study observed the difference in blood lipids with gorging (three meals per day) and nibbling (the consumption of frequent smaller meals or snacks). The researchers found that the nibbling diet was associated with reduced total and LDL cholesterol (13).
Other studies also confirm these findings by reporting low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in patients who ate four or more meals a day compared with those who ate 1-2 meals per day (8). Therefore, this shows that taking three or more meals a day may result in lower cholesterol levels, consequently reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Reduced Risk Of Obesity
From an analysis into meal frequency and obesity, the results showed that high (4 or more) meal-frequency diets lead to a lower risk of obesity than lower meal-frequency diet patterns (2). The conclusion was similar despite other factors, including age, sex, energy intake, and physical activity.
Another study into diet and cancer also found that high meal frequency can reduce obesity compared to less than three meals a day, especially among men. After adjustment for diet and lifestyle activities, the results were still a lower waist circumference (1).
Decreased Risk Of Diabetes
Lastly, a follow-up study showed those who ate one or two times a day had an increased risk of type two diabetes compared to those who ate three meals a day (3). If you eat less or practice intermittent fasting, where you skip certain meals such as breakfast, your body may become imbalanced and unable to control its blood sugar levels.
Eventually, this could lead to insulin resistance, where your body can no longer move sugar from the blood into the cells as efficiently. That’s when you could develop type two diabetes, leading to other dangerous complications (6).
Does Eating 3 Meals A Day Work For Weight Loss?
Theoretically, you can use three meals a day to lose weight because of several reasons. They include:
- You’re likely to eat fewer calories.
- You can feel fuller for longer with satisfying meals.
- You can practice mindful eating.
- You’ll make healthier choices.
However, according to scientific studies, there’s still a need for more research. Research shows that obesity is a growing epidemic with many risk factors such as cardiovascular disease, dyslipidemia, and hypertension. Experts recommend several strategies that would influence weight control and loss include exercises, diets, drugs, meal timing, and meal frequency (17).
As for a 3 meals a day diet plan, some studies have found that fewer meals (one or two) a day leads to a lower BMI (10). However, other factors, such as whether you eat breakfast and how much you snack, can affect the result.
The same study further reveals that such a meal frequency can positively affect your nutrition, including an effect of satiety hormones (leptin or ghrelin), an improvement of the peripheral circadian clock, and a reduction of oxidative damage together with a higher stress resistance (10).
On the other hand, other studies claim that high meal frequency (more than three meals) can reduce weight gain or decrease weight and the risk of type two diabetes (3).
As for insulin sensitivity, eating three times a day may help prevent insulin resistance. High insulin sensitivity may be associated with higher metabolic rates, meaning more calories burned throughout the day However, this isn’t a foolproof method as your metabolic rate can be affected by other factors, including your body type (16).
Studies show that eating three meals a day may improve satiety and reduce hunger cues compared with higher meal frequency diets (5). Doing so will help you eat fewer calories and stay on top of your nutritional needs without overeating or eating recklessly.
Reduced Decision Fatigue
Decision fatigue comes about when you have to make decisions even past your psychological threshold. It causes stress which could then lead to unnecessary weight gain. As you know, cortisol, your stress hormone, can lead to central obesity, visceral fat stored in your abdomen.
When you have a three-meals-a-day diet plan, you won’t have to keep up with your decisions because you can easily plan your meals. Preparing a meal plan is one of the most effective ways to combat decision fatigue, which lowers your stress levels.
Reduced decision fatigue will lead to less stress and less risk of additional weight gain.
Its Effect On Your Metabolic Rate
We’ve talked about how insulin sensitivity might improve your metabolic rate. However, frequent eating such as three times a day or more could also trigger the body to increase its metabolic rate. The more you eat, the more your body burns calories through the thermic effect of food.
However, such a change would only be minimal. Several studies comparing meal frequency and the effect on your metabolic rate revealed no significant impact on your metabolic rate nor fat loss (11, 9).
For results, try these 3 meals a day weight loss tips below:
- Eat three satisfying meals a day.
- Ensure each meal is balanced with all the macronutrients.
- Try to eat mindfully.
- Plan ahead of meals.
- Avoid high-calorie foods.
Despite the above tips, note that no dietary frequency guarantees weight loss. Whether you intake six meals a day or stick to three meals a day, it all boils down to your calorie intake and meal quality.
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How To Eat 3 Meals A Day The Right Way?
The right way to consume three meals a day is by ensuring each meal is satisfying, filled with essential nutrients, and contains healthy calories. All your three meals have to be balanced, and experts recommend that you track your calories, whether it’s for weight loss, gain, or maintenance.
Below is a guide on how to consume each of the three meals the right way.
- Balance your nutrients by adding protein, carbs, healthy fats and fruits/ vegetables.
- Add more fiber to your meal as it keeps you fuller for longer.
- Choose whole grain products such as whole wheat bread rather than white.
- Peanut butter is a good protein source.
- For sugar, use alternatives to refined sugar such as honey in moderation. You could also use natural fruits such as raisins or your favorite jam.
- Go for healthy smoothies if you’re not up for a hearty meal.
- Add plenty of vegetables to your eggs for a hearty meal.
- If you’re drinking yogurt, stick to plain Greek yogurt.
- Endeavor to make your pastry from bread, cakes, rolls, and others from home. It will ensure you can track your calories and use healthy ingredients.
Lunch And Dinner
The two consist of similar food choices from meat, poultry, salads, and more, so we decided to combine.
- Salads are great.
- Consume lots of oily fish. Not only are they rich in amino acids, but they also contain healthy fats.
- Both meals should have lots of fiber.
- Choose wholemeal/ whole grain carbs rather than white ones—for example, brown rice and whole wheat or corn tortillas.
- Skip fizzy drinks and sugary beverages and lean towards sparkling or pure water.
- For healthy fats, use avocado and hummus rather than mayonnaise or butter.
- Consume high proteins from beans and lean meat as they will help you build healthy body mass.
- For added flavor, roast or bake your vegetables rather than deep-frying them.
- Incorporate nutrient-dense vegetables of different colors such as carrots, broccoli, spinach, beets, squash, and tomatoes.
- There are more tips, such as using olive oil as your standard cooking oil since it’s a healthy fat source. Otherwise, when it comes to which one you should eat more is up to you.
Eating three meals a day may be rooted in our culture, but when it comes to weight loss, the number/frequency of your meals shouldn’t be your primary concern.
Meal frequency would only be effective for weight loss if you stick to your calorie count and healthy quality meals. Hence, even if you’re on this diet plan, you only need to plan for three hearty meals that align with your nutritional needs.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A high eating frequency is associated with an overall healthy lifestyle in middle-aged men and women and reduced likelihood of general and central obesity in men (2010, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Association between eating patterns and obesity in a free-living US adult population (2003, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Eating patterns and type 2 diabetes risk in men (2012, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Effect of meal frequency on glucose and insulin excursions over a day (2010, sciencedirect.com)
- Effects of meal frequency on metabolic profiles and substrate partitioning in lean healthy males (2012, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Fasting until noon triggers increased postprandial hyperglycemia and impaired insulin response after lunch and dinner in individuals with type 2 diabetes (2015, pubmed.nih.gov)
- High-energy breakfast with low-energy dinner decreases overall daily hyperglycemia in type 2 diabetic patients (2015, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Increased meal frequency associated with decreased cholesterol concentrations (1992, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet (2010, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study (2017, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Meal frequency and energy balance (1997, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Meal frequency and ischaemic heart disease (1968, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Nibbling versus gorging: metabolic advantages of increased meal frequency (1989, pubmed.nih.gov)
- The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans (2019, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- The effect of breakfast type on total daily energy intake and body mass index (2003, pubmed.nih.gov)
- The frequency of meals. Its relation to overweight, hypercholesterolemia, and decreased glucose-intolerance (1964, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Timing of food intake and obesity: a novel association (2014, pubmed.nih.gov)