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Weight Loss » How Often Should You Eat To Lose Weight: Settling This Debate Once And For All

How Often Should You Eat To Lose Weight: Settling This Debate Once And For All

eating 2 meals a day

How often should you eat to lose weight? This is a common question for the many people who are struggling to find the right weight loss diet. In your search for that diet, you will come across numerous weight loss tips, each specifying a different ideal number of times that you should eat to shed the desired pounds. For instance, some sources recommend eating 2 meals a day, 3 big meals, or 5-6 small meals, potentially leaving you even more confused than you were at the start(3) (29) (1).

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Sustainable weight loss is only achieved by following a healthy lifestyle which entails eating low calorie and highly nutritious foods, and engaging in physical activity. Some argue that more attention should be paid to breakfast as it kick-starts metabolism. Others insist that you should spread the meals throughout the day to reduce cravings and hunger, others believe in intermittent fasting, while there is a school of thought that holds that eating just before bed is a sure bet for weight gain (6) (17). So, exactly how often should you be eating in order to lose weight?

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How Often Should You Eat To Lose Weight: Squashing The Confusion Once And For All

One thing is for sure, people are different, and so what works for you may not work for the the next person. According to Trifecta, studies on how many meals a day should you eat to attain your weight loss goals give mixed outcomes (17). One study published in the Journal of Nutrition shows that taking fewer meals in a day may play a role in weight management simply because of the enhanced calorie control (i.e. eating less overall). Additionally,  a long overnight fast (18 hours or more) may result in decreased BMI in comparison to a medium (12-17 hour) overnight fast, while breakfast eaters experienced a decrease in BMI compared with those who skipped this first meal of the day (23). 

A position paper by the International Society of Sports Nutrition indicates that as long as your calorie intake is controlled, eating frequently will not cause a significant difference in weight loss and body composition (22). It is, therefore, important to understand the relationship between eating frequency and the following terminologies, which in turn will help you customize the number of times that you should eat a day to achieve your weight loss goals. 

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  • Eating Frequency And Metabolic Rate

Will the metabolic rate increase if you eat many times? Metabolism refers to the number of calories that you burn daily, i.e. how efficiently the body generates and utilizes energy (17). Your overall energy expenditure is determined by the resting metabolic rate (RMR) or the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which refers to the minimum number of calories that are required to be performed while at rest. This accounts for about 60%-70% of your entire calorie requirements, and it varies from one individual to another based on muscle mass, genetics, age, and overall health among other factors (17). For instance, people with a naturally fast metabolism may eat what they want and yet do not add weight. Usually, about a 30% of calorie expenditure is increased by increased physical activity and workouts (17).

Eating, and the type of food you eat contributes to a very tiny part of your total daily energy expenditure. Although digesting food requires you to put out some effort, equally the consumption of some calories, research published in the Journal of Nutrition & Metabolism showed that less than 10% of your daily calories are used up when you eat (9). Therefore, calories burnt as you eat are much less than those you are eating, meaning that the belief that eating frequently increases your metabolism is an overstated theory.

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  • Eating Frequency And Hunger or Cravings

Research offers conflicting results. A study published in the Journal of Nutrition concluded that eating frequently does not help in controlling overall appetite, i.e. hunger and cravings (16). Instead, you might lose weight by eating less often because doing so may support greater appetite control and decrease the feelings of hunger. A review of controlled feeding studies concluded that there is significant increase in perceived appetite and decrease in perceived satisfaction when 1-2 meals are removed from the daily diet, while eating more often had little effect on appetite and satiety over the course of the day.

They concluded that increased eating frequency has minimal effect on food intake and appetite control, while a reduced eating frequency may negatively affect appetite control (31). Also, a randomized controlled trial established that increasing meal frequency from 3 to 6 in a day may increase hunger and the desire to eat (11). However this may depend on whether one is overweight or lean, fit or not. For instance, one clinical trial examining lean men found that smaller, frequent meals whose nutrients were spread equally and eaten evenly throughout the day helped control appetite, and this control in satiety, when eating smaller multiple meals may be related to the attenuation in insulin response as well as other,  physical and physiological factors (14).

Additionally, what you eat may affect your hunger levels. For instance, a publication in the Journal of Nutrients established that eating more refined carbohydrates and high sugar foodstuffs may increase appetite, whereby the intake of slowly digestible starch and resistant starch was linked to satiety, reduced hunger and/or reduced body weight (28). On the other hand, nutrient dense, whole food high in protein may help manage hunger and play a big impact on weight loss. Therefore, it can be concluded that more evidence points to the fact that the type of food eaten, instead of the frequency of meals in a day matters more when it comes to controlling appetite and hunger.

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  • Breakfast And Weight Loss

Many claim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, backed with studies which show that consuming large breakfast, less snacking, and smaller lunch and dinner may promote better weight control because of enhanced appetite and reduced calorie intake (23) )(15). Indeed, consuming more calories early in the morning may help lose weight;  however, what you eat at breakfast also matters,  for instance, high protein-high carbs breakfast may reduce hunger and cravings. One randomized controlled trial concluded that a high protein and carbohydrate breakfast may prevent weight regain for this reason (24). Several other studies confirm that a high-protein breakfast greatly contributes to weight loss because it increases satisfaction (30).Therefore, it can be concluded that a high protein breakfast may result in controlled blood sugar, better appetite control, and reduced calorie intake, leading to effective weight loss.

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  • Eating Before Bed And Weight Loss

What is the best time to eat dinner? Most people believe that taking a huge meal just before bed causes you to store more fat, hence weight gain. Some diets specify the number of hours that you should eat before dinner, for instance the 3 hour diet recommends that you should take the last meal of the day 3 hours before sleeping (29). However, note that the metabolic rate does not shut down when you go to bed, and that your body utilizes whatever energy there is, regardless of the time so long as you eat within the recommended daily calories. One study in UK children found no significant relationship between the timing of the evening meal and energy intake, therefore, taking dinner after 8 p.m may not contribute to weight gain or increase energy intake (33).

Those in the habit of eating late at night may be making poor food choices and consuming more calories, leading to weight gain that is not necessarily associated with sleep timing and duration (25) (26) (8). Also, eating too much at night may cause indigestion which may disturb your sleep, for instance, research found that shorter dinner-to-bed times significantly contributed to an increased odds ratio of gastro-esophageal reflux disease (5).  It can, therefore, be concluded that dinner can be taken any time, as long as it is within the daily calorie-intake, you should avoid unhealthy foods, and you may eat smaller portions to stick to the daily calories.

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  • Skipping Meals And Weight Loss

Does fasting or skipping meals contribute to weight loss? Some believe that skipping meals interferes with the appetite and energy levels, causing one to overeat during the next meal (32). Overeating may result in possibly risky metabolic changes such as delayed insulin response and elevated fasting glucose levels that may cause diabetes (32). On the other hand, alternate-day dieting may enhance health by causing weight loss and lower cholesterol among others (32). Meal irregularity can have negative effects on your health because by feeding the body at regular times, a signal is sent that there is no need to store calories, therefore, skipping meals may negatively affect your metabolism (29).

You should also know that the effect of skipping meals may differ depending on the meal that you skip. For instance, in one study, not eating breakfast was strongly associated with higher body weights than not eating before bedtime, while other studies have suggested that the meal that is excluded does not matter, as long as there is controlled calorie-intake (27) (7). Also, the consistency with which you have been taking your meals matters. For instance, if you eat at the same time each day then skip a meal, your appetite may be affected more than if you are used to skipping the same meal every day, a proof that following routine may determine how you manage hunger and calories (21).

Note that intermittent fasting may help one lose weight by restricting the eating window to a particular time of the day. For example, you are required to eat once a day, therefore your calorie intake is reduced (2). However, other than controlling calorie-intake, skipping meals and fasting may not be more effective than regular meal frequencies. It can be concluded that skipping meals as part of a controlled diet which results in lower caloric intake may improve health, while skipping meals and then overeating later on may be harmful to your health. This means that fasting and skipping meals may help cut calories if you do not take in more calories when you eat next, and to manage your appetite, you should establish routine.

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  • Meal Frequency And Starvation Mode

  • Proponents of frequent eating argue that staying for long without eating may lead to starvation mode. For instance, the 3-hour diet does not prevent you from eating any of your favourite foods, but recommends eating  5 meals a day, including a small dessert, as long as you follow a strict timetable. It involves eating breakfast within 1 hour of waking up, then eating every 3 hours, but stop eating 3 hours before going to bed, to increase the BMR, energy levels, and decrease appetite among other benefits (29). Based on the arguments for this diet, consuming small, balanced meals every 3 hours enhances the fat-burning potential of the body, and skipping meals may result in the body going into the starvation protection mode where calories are conserved, fats stored, and muscle, instead of fat, is burnt for energy. During the starvation mode, it is believed that your metabolic rate immediately slows down to preserve energy and prepare for starvation, therefore, eating after every 3 hours repeatedly rests the metabolism to stay in high gear, enabling you to burn fats throughout the day, and as a result, you may lose up to 10 pounds in 2 weeks (29)
  • However, there are arguments that prove that this is not a healthy weight loss plan and promises too much within a short time. According to researchers, slower metabolism may be as a result of eating fewer calories over a long time, which is what makes it hard for those who have lost weight to maintain their lower weight. However, the concept of  adaptive thermogenesis should not be used to justify eating more often (19).
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How To Customize Your  Meal Frequencies

At this point, it is clear that as long as your diet is high quality and healthy; you do not have to stick to meal times as defined by other people (19). Eat as frequently as you require to be active and healthy. Having a food journal can help you customize your eating frequencies by recording when you have cravings and when you actually feel hungry, then schedule meals and snacks accordingly. Know when you have energy dips, observe your sleep schedule to ensure you get adequate rest, take plenty of water, then you can plan your meals.

  • Take nutritious high-fiber, high-protein foods which will make you feel fuller for long, and are low in calories.
  • Know your daily calorie requirements to lose weight, then try to stay within 100 calories of that target .
  • If by following a healthy weight loss plan does not help you shed pounds, consult a doctor to find out if there is a condition or medicine affecting it.
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You may want to take 4 meals or more in a day if:

  • You want to gain weight but cannot eat many calories in one meal.
  •  Your calorie-demands are very high and you have a very active job.
  • You are an athlete requiring particular nutrient timings around exercises.
  • You become hungry often, and when you do, you become angry as well. 

You may want to eat less often if:

  • You find the smaller meals approach complex.
  • You do not want to think about food all the time, but still stick to your planned calories.
  • You have digestive issues, therefore, taking a long break from meals will help the body digest food completely. 
  • You feel that skipping meals or fasting may help you to achieve the appropriate calorie restriction needed to get to a healthy weight.
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 FAQs

  • How often should you eat avocado to lose weight

Eating too many avocados can be harmful to your health because they are high in calories. According to Huffpost, you can take half an avocado a day and a maximum of 1, preferably at one meal (18).

  • How often should you fast

There are various intermittent fasting methods, all specifying different periods for fasting. These include 16/8 method, The 5:2 diet, Eat Stop Eat, Alternate-day fasting, and Spontaneous meal skipping among others (2).  

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Conclusion

So, how many meals a day should you eat? Some studies show that a shorter eating window may contribute to weight loss; however, you need not to worry about how many hours between meals, but instead, focus on the required daily calorie-intake. It is the quality of the diet, and not frequency that makes the difference, with some experts arguing that weight loss occurs only when you take more healthy food, and not how often you eat, because these high-quality meals may help you establish an eating schedule that will assist in reaching and maintaining healthy weight (19). 

How often should you eat a day to lose weight? Clearly, there is no magical number of the number of times that you should eat a day to lose weight. Controlling the amount of calories that you consume daily may be the best approach to losing and controlling weight, despite the number of meals or the time that you eat. Therefore, the answer to how often should you eat to lose weight is as many times as you need to meet your optimal calorie intake for weight loss, which can be one by either decreasing meal size or eating less often (29). Seek professional guidance before partaking in any weight loss diet so that your doctor or nutritionist can establish if it is the ideal one for you.

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DISCLAIMER: 

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!

SOURCES:

  1. 5 Meals A Day: Can Smaller Portions Boost Your Weight Loss Success? (2020, betterme.world)
  2. 6 Popular Ways to Do Intermittent Fasting (2020, healthline.com)
  3. A former stockbroker turned personal trainer tells us why eating 2 meals a day is the best way to lose weight and feel less hungry (2017, africa.businessinsider.com)
  4. A randomized, controlled, crossover trial to assess the acute appetitive and metabolic effects of sausage and egg-based convenience breakfast meals in overweight premenopausal women (2015, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  5. Association between dinner-to-bed time and gastro-esophageal reflux disease (2005, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  6. Breakfast: Is It the Most Important Meal? (n.d, webmd.com)
  7. Breakfast: To Skip or Not to Skip? (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  8.  Contribution of evening macronutrient intake to total caloric intake and body mass index (2013, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  9. Diet induced thermogenesis (2004, nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com)
  10. Eating Frequency and Weight Loss (2015, health.harvard.edu)
  11. Effects of increased meal frequency on fat oxidation and perceived hunger (2013, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  12. Experts debate how often we should eat for weight loss (n.d,webmd.com)
  13.  Extra protein at breakfast helps control hunger (2018, health.harvard.edu)
  14. Greater appetite control associated with an increased frequency of eating in lean males (1999, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  15. High caloric intake at breakfast vs. dinner differentially influences weight loss of overweight and obese women (2013, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  16. Higher Eating Frequency Does Not Decrease Appetite in Healthy Adults (2016,ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  17. How Many Times Should You Eat a Day to Lose Weight? (2019, trifectanutrition.com)
  18. How Much Avocado Is Healthy To Eat In A Day? (2018, huffpost.com)
  19. How Often Should You Eat? (2018, verywellfit.com)
  20. HOW OFTEN SHOULD YOU EAT A DAY? MYTHS & FACTS ABOUT MEAL FREQUENCY (2018, runtastic.com)
  21. Impact of Reduced Meal Frequency Without Caloric Restriction on Glucose Regulation in Healthy, Normal Weight Middle-Aged Men and Women (2008, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  22. International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing (2017, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  23. Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2 (2017, academic.oup.com)
  24. Meal timing and composition influence ghrelin levels, appetite scores and weight loss maintenance in overweight and obese adults (2012, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  25. Meal timing influences daily caloric intake in healthy adults (2014, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  26. Role of sleep timing in caloric intake and BMI (2011, /pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  27. Skipping Breakfast is Correlated with Obesity (2014, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  28. Starches, Sugars and Obesity (2011, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  29. The 3-Hour Diet (2020, webmd.com)
  30. The addition of a protein-rich breakfast and its effects on acute appetite control and food intake in ‘breakfast-skipping’ adolescents (2010, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  31. The effect of eating frequency on appetite control and food intake: brief synopsis of controlled feeding studies (2011, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
  32. The Risks and Rewards of Skipping Meals (2007, well.blogs.nytimes.com)
  33. The timing of the evening meal: how is this associated with weight status in UK children?(2016, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
Jedidah Tabalia

Jedidah Tabalia

Jedidah is a passionate writer with over 5 years of experience in researching and providing content on healthy eating habits, specifically in relation to nutritious dieting, exercising, and weight loss that contribute to a person's overall well-being. She injects her go-getter mentality and can-do attitude into every article because she believes that happiness begins with good health, so the more people she inspires to embark on a healthy journey, the better. Jedidah provides tailored, evidence-based content that will ensure her readers that fitting healthy diets and workouts into their hectic lifestyles is not only possible, but easy and affordable.
She believes that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and a steadfast commitment to a healthy lifestyle is bound to pay off.

Kristen Fleming

Kristen Fleming

I am a U.S. educated and trained Registered Dietitian (MS, RD, CNSC) with clinical and international development experience. I have experience conducting systematic reviews and evaluating the scientific literature both as a graduate student and later to inform my own evidence-based practice as an RD. I am currently based in Lusaka, Zambia after my Peace Corps service was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic and looking for some meaningful work to do as I figure out next steps. This would be my first freelance project, but I am a diligent worker and quite used to independent and self-motivated work.

Kristen Fleming, MS, RD, CNSC

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