Today's question on meal timing and meal composition is from a loyal listener of all of the podcasts within the OLD family.
This question was asked a while ago, but I haven’t forgotten it. Before I could give an accurate answer, I had to wait until more studies were published to better understand the links between meal timing and hunger and meal timing and health status, like body weight.
Well, that day has finally arrived!
I do need to mention that even with published studies, nothing is ever set in stone. As new studies are performed, conclusions may change.
Even so, here’s what recent studies are finding when it comes to meal timing, hunger, and managing body weight.
Potential Disadvantages to Eating 6 Meals a Day
First, the 6 meals a day thing.
The 6 meals a day idea became popular because of two main beliefs:
- it takes energy to digest and absorb the foods you eat, so you could potentially increase your metabolism by eating more frequent meals, and
- if you don’t wait too long in between meals, then you hopefully won’t overeat at each meal.
Well, it turns out that eating 6 small meals a day may not be the best choice for the average person.
Notice, I said “average person” – what I mean by this is someone that isn’t a competitive athlete. For example, eating 6 meals each day would serve someone like Michael Phelps, pre-retirement…but only because he was working out for 6 hours a day.
For the rest of us, planning for and preparing 6 meals a day may not be necessary.
Do You Gain More Weight with 6 Meals a Day?
First, we don’t need that many calories each day and second, it can be exhausting.
In fact, studies have found that those that consume 6 meals a day are more likely to gain weight when compared to those that eat less frequently.
When I used to see patients that would follow this type of eating plan, they would share status updates with me and often report that they would eat just because it was time to eat – not because they were actually hungry. They wanted to eat 6 meals each day because they thought it was helping them perform at their best but found that they just weren’t hungry when it came time to eat.
When my patients would share these experiences with me, alarm bells would sound off in my head. I would ask myself, “If this person is constantly eating when they’re not really hungry, aren’t they just developing a new bad habit?” The habit of eating even though they’re not hungry.
Meal Timing Tip: Eat Only When You're Hungry
So much of my time is often spent training people to eat only when they are truly hungry that this felt completely counterproductive.
In fact, researchers agree. They found that when people do not eat intentionally, but instead consume their meals just because the clock says it’s mealtime, they may actually gain weight. Given my patients were trying to lose weight, this was counterproductive.
Well, the research is now telling us that we need to find patterns of eating that complement our lifestyle. Our listener today mentioned that he's returned to eating 3 meals a day. If you find that this suits your lifestyle and helps you feel your best, then by all means, continue.
Second, we really need to think about how a “meal” is defined. Does this mean that someone needs to eat a grain, a protein, a vegetable and a piece of fruit 6 times a day? What about portion sizes?
For example, we know from lots of published studies that protein, water, and dietary fiber contribute to increased feelings of fullness.
So, if each meal consists of some protein and is relatively high in dietary fiber and the person is really good about hydrating their body, they may not feel hungry for a few hours. This is very normal.
Where Researchers Actually Agree
The one thing researchers do seem to agree on is that eating breakfast seems to be helpful for most everyone. It may help improve our physical and mental performance throughout the day and may help prevent overconsumption the rest of the day.
The definition of “breakfast” does differ based on who you ask, but the standard definition is eating within 3 hours of waking after the longest period of sleep. It is recommended that breakfast consists of 300 to 500 calories and is composed of foods that are high in calcium, potassium, vitamin D and dietary fiber.
That all sounds very complicated but check this out: an example of a breakfast that contains all of these nutrients would be something like this…yogurt, topped with fruit and nuts.
The yogurt is a good source of calcium and contains some vitamin D. The fruit would provide some potassium, and both the fruit and nuts would provide dietary fiber.
Meal Timing: The Bottom Line
So, here’s the deal: finding a meal pattern that suits you and your goals and lifestyle is probably most important.
Next, take a look at the portion sizes and composition of your meals. Make sure portion sizes are reasonable and that your meals consist of lean proteins, vegetables, and whole grains at a minimum.
If you were to prioritize your meals, I would say breakfast is still the most important meal of the day. Don't skip it for the sake of convenience.