For much of my 20 years as a fitness professional, conventional nutrition advice said that people are better off eating four, five, or even six times per day than eating one, two, or three times per day. Early on in my career, I encouraged clients to eat every few hours, which meant that they snacked multiple times each day.
In recent years, research has emerged showing that snacking may actually be detrimental to your health and weight management.
My personal experience, as well the results coming from my personal training clients, reinforce my second nutrition guideline:
In case you were wondering, my first nutrition guideline is to eat high-protein.
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Why Dietitians and fitness professionals recommend snacking
Fitness professionals recommend small, frequent meals for a myriad of reasons. However, science doesn’t support them.
In case you ever confront these reasons, I’ll briefly address them.
To avoid a metabolic slowdown
Each time you eat, your body burns calories to digest and absorb the nutrition from your food. If you measure your metabolic rate throughout the day, you will notice it rise each time you eat.
That led people to believe that eating more often led to a faster metabolism. But, in reality, if you eat the same foods over two meals or six meals, the food has the same net impact on your metabolism.
Along the same lines, some fitness professionals recommend eating every few hours to avoid going into a starvation state and slowing your resting metabolic rate. It turns out that idea is way off base, as well. Your metabolic rate actually increases even after a few days on a fast. It won’t slow down after only a few hours.
There’s no metabolic benefit to eating more often.
To avoid muscle loss
Aside from physique competitors or those with chronic wasting diseases, you don’t need to worry about losing muscle if you don’t eat every few hours.
For most people who aren’t on steroids, eating more than three times per day is unlikely to help you build muscle faster, either.
What’s most important is getting enough nutrition and total protein.
To maintain a more steady blood sugar level
To keep patients from riding a blood sugar roller coaster and messing with their medication, conventional dietitians recommend eating smaller, more frequent meals.
It’s sort of like recommending an alcoholic drink a little bit all day long rather than a lot all at once.
The issue for a person with diabetes is carbohydrates, just as the issue for an alcoholic is alcohol. Both should abstain from the substance that causes problems.
The difference is, the person with diabetes can get cured and eat carbs again, whereas the person with alcoholism needs to abstain indefinitely.
All that to say that the dietitian’s diet advice isn’t good for treating someone with diabetes, and it certainly isn’t good for the person without it.
The Case Against Snacking
Though the rationales above for eating more often sound good, research and experience don’t support them. In fact, coaching people to eat more often likely contributes to obesity and health problems. It doesn’t prevent them.
I recommend avoiding snacks for multiple reasons. Some relate to your behavior. Others relate to your hormones and metabolism.
a “grazing” temporal eating pattern was modestly but significantly associated with poorer diet quality and adiposity among womenLeech RM, et al.
Eating often conditions you to eat often
If you intend to eat five times per day, that means you’ll have to eat every three to four hours.
Not long after your current meal, you’ll have to think about your next meal.
It doesn’t take much for your thoughts about eating to become an obsession.
If you eat less often, you’ll think about eating less often because you have to plan to eat less often.
Snack foods are some of the most addicting foods on the planet. Loaded with artificial flavors and rich in fat and carbohydrates, they satisfy more than cravings. They give you a temporary high followed by hedonic hunger.
Of course, most snack food companies don’t want you to know this. The snack food industry generates more than $45 billion per year. As you’ll see, consumption of these foods helps fuel sales of another massive industry: pharmaceuticals.
Research supports this concept as well. As one study concluded:
In summary, although consuming smaller, more frequent meals is often advocated as a means of controlling body weight, the present study suggests that this practice has no obvious advantages in terms of its effects on metabolism and appetite, and may, in fact, even have adverse effects on hunger and satiety.Ohkawara K, et al.
Between meal snacks increase carbohydrate consumption
Aside from a personal trainer who weighs, measures, and packs every meal and snack, most people who eat snacks or who eat more than three meals per day eat significantly more carbohydrates than those who eat just two or three meals per day.
Once your carbohydrate stores are full, you take those extra carbohydrates and convert them to triglycerides and body fat while also keeping blood sugar and insulin levels higher than healthy levels for more of your day.
Eating too often prevents growth hormone secretion
It takes about three hours to digest and absorb a meal, and for your blood sugar and insulin levels to return to normal. In addition, growth hormone levels start to rise about that time, increasing fat metabolism and enhancing tissue growth and repair.
Those who eat within a few hours of a previous meal miss out on this growth hormone secretion.
Imagine the impact of getting a couple of extra natural doses of growth hormone each day compared to the person who eats all day long, and only experiences an increase in growth hormone during sleep (if they get good quality sleep).
Leptin and ghrelin (your hunger hormones) secretion may also get sabotaged by eating too often. In essence, you train yourself to be in a constant state of hunger or cravings.
In a study of more than 50,000 Seventh-day Adventists, researchers looked at whether eating fewer meals each day led to better body composition. They found that the more meals people eat, the more they weigh.
Our results suggest that in relatively healthy adults, eating less frequently, no snacking, consuming breakfast, and eating the largest meal in the morning may be effective methods for preventing long-term weight gain. Eating breakfast and lunch 5–6 h apart and making the overnight fast last 18–19 h may be a useful practical strategy.Kahleova H, et al.
The study authors believed lower meal frequency led to less oxidative stress, improved satiety, and better circadian rhythm, impacting sleep quality and hunger-related and sex hormone balance.
A smaller study from the mid-90s showed similar results. Those who ate more often were more likely to be obese or overweight. The findings included adolescents.
While their conclusion contains multiple diet choices, like the longer fast, eating a bigger breakfast, and skipping snacks, I’m becoming more convinced that the timing of one’s largest meal is a lot less important than reduced meal frequency.
How to Get Back to Two or Three Square Meals Per Day
It wasn’t until recently that humans could eat all day long. Throughout most of history, we ate one or two meals, sometimes three. But, with a bit of patience and persistence, you can wean yourself off of the cravings and get back to eating two or three square meals per day. Here’s how I help my nutrition coaching clients do it.
Before I have clients eat fewer meals, I first have them eat more protein, beginning with their first meal.
Higher-protein meals make you feel full longer and help you maintain better blood sugar and insulin levels.
After a client becomes consistent with eating high-protein at all meals and snacks, I have them remove one meal or snack at a time. Over time, we work our way down to two or three meals per day.
High-protein snacks (a short-term hack)
During the transition from multiple meals to two or three, I encourage people to eat high-protein snacks rather than the carbohydrate-rich snacks most people eat. Some great options include:
- Beef, turkey, or another meat-based jerky
- Whey protein shakes
- Low-carb, high-protein bars
- Cottage cheese
- Low/no-sugar Greek yogurt
- Quest protein chips
Eat at consistent times
While eating fewer meals each day provides numerous health benefits, there’s one caveat:
Our bodies operate with a circadian rhythm. Though our sleep patterns affect circadian rhythm, so does our eating pattern.
People who eat only two or three meals each day, and eat therm at inconsistent times, tend to be heavier and less healthy. Conversely, eating only two or three meals per day at consistent times leads to better health and body composition.
For example, perhaps you’ve eaten a meal much later than usual, and the next morning you feel unusually hungry. Your late-night meal might have disrupted your ghrelin and leptin levels, the hormones that affect hunger and satiety.
Get active instead of eating
If you’ve developed a pattern of snacking at a specific time, find something else to do during that time.
Do lawn work, go to the gym and do a VIGOR Training workout, walk through a park, or find another activity that takes your mind off of eating.
If you have a habit of eating while working, scrolling through social media, or doing something else, you need to find something different to do. Hoping not to eat, while doing the same things you’ve done before while eating, is a recipe for failure.
Eat dessert right after dinner
If you tend to eat a snack late at night, you probably don’t need to give up the snack. You just need to eat it as part of dinner.
As I often tell my clients,
Provided you ate a high-protein dinner, if you’re going to eat something sweet, you’re better off eating it right after your meal as part of your meal than eating it later in the evening as a “snack.”
A recent review of the research on meal frequency concluded with the following:
Based on the evidence presented in this review, several interesting health-promoting recommendations can be shared with the audience. There may be physiological benefits to consuming a greater proportion of calories earlier in the day, which often involves breakfast consumption, as compared to consuming a large number of calories later at night. There may also be benefits to extending the daily fasting period beyond a standard overnight fast or implementing occasional fasting periods. In order to reconcile these two strategies, an individual could eat from breakfast until mid- to late-afternoon each day. However, it should be considered that this style of eating may not be desirable or feasible for many individuals, as it represents a paradigm shift from traditional eating patterns in many parts of the world.Paoli A, et al.
Based on the existing research, my experience with clients, and experimentation myself, I’d usually recommend the following:
- Eat two to three high-protein meals per day
- If possible, include a fast of about 16 hours each day (intermittent fasting), making “breakfast” a lunchtime meal for most people
- If you must exercise first thing in the morning, eat a morning meal and an evening meal, skipping lunch.
- Eat the bulk of your carbs at dinner, keeping your first (or second) meal low-carb, high-protein.
- Don’t snack, and if you’re going to eat dessert, eat it as part of your dinner.
Eat meals, not snacks.
Howarth, N. C., et al. “Eating Patterns and Dietary Composition in Relation to BMI in Younger and Older Adults.” International Journal of Obesity, vol. 31, no. 4, 4, Nature Publishing Group, Apr. 2007, pp. 675–84. www.nature.com, doi:10.1038/sj.ijo.0803456.
IBISWorld – Industry Market Research, Reports, and Statistics. https://www.ibisworld.com/default.aspx. Accessed 26 May 2021.
Kahleova, Hana, et al. “Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 147, no. 9, Sept. 2017, pp. 1722–28. Silverchair, doi:10.3945/jn.116.244749.
Leech, Rebecca M., et al. “Temporal Eating Patterns: Associations with Nutrient Intakes, Diet Quality, and Measures of Adiposity.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 106, no. 4, Oct. 2017, pp. 1121–30. Silverchair, doi:10.3945/ajcn.117.156588.
Ohkawara, Kazunori, et al. “Effects of Increased Meal Frequency on Fat Oxidation and Perceived Hunger.” Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), vol. 21, no. 2, Feb. 2013, pp. 336–43. PubMed Central, doi:10.1002/oby.20032.