How Often Do You Eat?

by Kate on February 4, 2013

in Health, Healthy Eating, Healthy Living

A bowl of saladIf you have questions about what you should be eating for optimal health, then you can find plenty of diet and nutrition books, articles, and videos on the subject. But, what if you’re wondering how often you should eat? The standard advice these days seems to be that for optimal metabolism and fullness that lasts and keeps you from overeating, you ought to eat several small meals a day. Conventional wisdom also tells us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Others say just listen to your body and eat when you’re hungry, which may work for someone who’s never struggled with their weight or an eating disorder, but what about those of us who are always hungry?  Can you really trust your body’s signals if your body led you astray in the first place? Other food gurus support less conventional approaches to eating like intermittent fasting and skipping breakfast. So what’s the reasoning behind all these different philosophies, what will really work, and which ones do you believe in?

5-6 Small Meals a Day

 I’ve always naturally been more of a grazer myself. I’ve often suspected my preference for frequent small meals comes from my mild IBS–I tend to get bloated quickly when eating so perhaps that makes it uncomfortable for me to eat large meals. Any time I’ve explained my grazing habits to someone I’m inevitably met with “Oh well, that’s actually really good for you. It’s better for your metabolism.”  Actually, eating small regular meals does nothing special for your metabolism. You could eat a 14 oz steak all in one sitting or cut up into 5 portions throughout the day and your body would still expend the same energy to digest it. That said, this method may have other benefits. If you’re basically always eating you won’t feel deprived, so you may be less likely to overeat at the next meal. Plus eating small frequent meals (especially if you try to have a bit of protein at each meal) may help keep your blood sugar levels stabile. I also imagine that from a purely instinctual level eating small amounts frequently probably signals to your body that food is plentiful and available so you don’t need to feel anxious about food supply (and thus gorge yourself the next time a lot of food is put in front of you).

3 Meals a Day

 There are still many benefits to 3 meals a day. For most people, preparing to eat every 3-4 hours when juggling work and family is a challenge. Plus, for some people eating more frequently means thinking more about food which may increase cravings. Still others will hear “5-6 meals a day” forgetting about the “small” part, and end up eating more this way. On the question of whether to eat 3 meals or 5 meals a day, I think can trust your body. If you eat less at meals naturally then you’re likely to need to snack more often. If you can stomach a big meal, then 3 meals a day is probably just fine for you.

Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day?

It’s true studies have shown that those who skip breakfast tend to weigh more than breakfast eaters. That said, do any of us really skip breakfast? Breakfast means “breaking the fast” and we all eventually break our fast at some point don’t we? Additionally, one wonders how intuition plays into all of this.  After all, one can see how skipping breakfast would be very unhealthy for a dieter who skips breakfast in an effort to restrict calories even when his or her body is crying out for food (denying your hunger impulses is never a good idea). But what if you just naturally have no appetite first thing in the morning and your body doesn’t naturally want to break it’s fast until you’ve been up a few hours? If you’re not struggling with your weight and you’re in good health, then maybe delaying breakfast isn’t such a bad thing. Especially if otherwise breakfast for you means donuts and a sugary Frappuccino.

Eat When You’re Hungry, Don’t Eat When You’re Not (Trust Your Body)

 I think if we all had low stress lives and glowing healthy relationships to food and our bodies then this advice would be the most sage of all. But since most of us have lives full of anxiety and all kinds of body hang-ups, trusting your impulses might not always be the best idea. That said, the one thing you probably can trust are your hunger impulses. Denying yourself food when you’re hungry is never a good idea. It’s the impulses to eat 3 bags of M&Ms in one sitting that you’ve got to watch out for. That said, pay attention to those impulses and you’ll probably get an idea what your body needs. For example if it is sugar you seem to crave then you probably are on the sugar rollercoaster (with the rest of America) and DO need to watch your sugar intake for a couple weeks. You’d be amazed how your sugar cravings will subside once you avoid it for a few days. If you constantly want ice cream and milkshakes, consider if you’re getting enough dairy in your diet. Salt cravings? Up your water intake–salt helps you retain water so your body may be trying to let you know you need more water.

Intermittent Fasting

There are some who believe that because our ancestors never had access to food 24/7, eating every 3-4 hours with an 8 hour break for sleep is actually completely unnatural. It takes about six to eight hours for your body to metabolize your glycogen stores and after that you actually start to shift to burning fat. However if you are replenishing your glycogen by eating every few hours, you make it far more difficult for your body to actually use your fat stores as fuel. Therefore some suggest intermittent fasting as a way to encourage your body to dip into your fat stores when trying to lose weight. Most who follow the “intermittent fasting” method simply skip breakfast and wait to eat a late lunch to create a fast of around 14-18 hours. Intermittent fasting has actually be shown to offer quite a few health benefits from increased longevity to increased insulin sensitivity to better mental health. I won’t get into it much more, and can’t say I’ve ever done it intentionally (Unintentionally, I’ve done it a few times though!), but if you’re interested, you might read this article from one of my favorite blogs, Mark’s Daily Apple.

How often do you eat? Have you ever experimented with switching up the frequency to see how it would affect your well-being?

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*In the spirit of full disclosure, links to products in this post may be affiliate links, which means that I may receive a commission if you decide to purchase any of the products I recommend. Know that I only recommend products that I have used and love myself.

*I am not a doctor, a nurse, or any kind of health practitioner. I’m just a gal with a pretty keen intuitive sense, great research abilities, and curiosity that is easily peaked. Please understand that my advice is really just another opinion and it’s for you (and your doctor) to decide the best course for your health and well-being.

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photo by: Anushruti RK

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