As long as I can remember, I have been under the assumption that I had to eat 6 meals a day to keep my metabolism churning to lose weight. When I lost a significant amount of weight in 2013, I ate several small meals throughout the day—even though I worked two jobs and a full time school schedule. Looking back, I realize now how unsustainable that level of eating frequency was and why I’d never do that again. Ironically enough, recent weight loss fads like intermittent fasting and OMAD (one meal a day) preach a much different message regarding meal frequency and timing. Is there a singular theory that ties together when and how often we should be eating? Not quite—however, experts do have some general recommendations, albeit with some caveats.
The Experts Weight In
Most experts agree that more research needs to be conducted regarding fasting, meal frequency and timing. So many different physiological processes influence a person’s optimal eating schedule that it may not be possible to offer a “one-size-fits-all” solution that will work for everyone. For example, a person’s “chronotype,” or natural inclination to sleep at a certain time, can influence eating habits and metabolism. Now if you add other physiological considerations—such as age, gender, health conditions—the waters get muddied even further. Although science has yet to break through these complexities, several experts agree that there are some meal timing and frequency recommendations worth consideration.
A 2019 study in Nutrients found that eating more at your first meal of the day, reducing meal frequency to 2-3 meals a day, and eating at an increased fasting period of 12-16 hours a day could reduce inflammation, improve circadian rhythm, improve the gut microbiome, and reduce stress. Another 2019 study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms came to similar conclusions and recommended eating in a 12 hour window, eating most of your calories in the earlier part of the day, and to avoid eating at bedtime, late at night or early in the morning. Sounds great, right? Let’s look at these recommendations a bit more closely.
A fasting period of 12-16 hours would mean eating between, let’s say 8am to 8pm or 8am to 4pm. How many of us have work schedules that we can reasonably eat dinner as early as 4pm? If you naturally wake up earlier, this moves your last meal of the day even earlier. These recommendations also push a bigger breakfast—a thought that grosses me out to no end. I hate eating large breakfasts and if you are anything like me that’s a major dealbreaker. If you are an early bird or night owl, these recommendations also forgo early morning meals or after dinner snacks. Luckily, the authors of both articles admit that these recommendations are not feasible for everyone and that the quality of your diet is just as important in terms of your overall health.
Meal frequency and timing is a personal choice and you should not try to model your eating habits to these recommendations if they do not fit your lifestyle. You should structure your meal frequency and timing in a way that keeps you satiated and that you can sustain for the rest of your life. I don’t personally like big breakfasts, but to keep me from overeating later in the day I have a breakfast smoothie every morning. We all have our eating quirks and physiological differences that require us to eat differently. If you are trying to lose weight, diet quality and calorie count are more important than meal timing and frequency. Once you find a meal frequency and timing schedule that works for you, stick with it to keep yourself consistent.
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Remember, be kind to yourself and always move forward!