How many meals should we eat a day? Growing up you probably never considered this question. ‘Three square meals’ a day was simply the norm and there was no reason for you to question this. After all, breakfast, lunch, and dinner are ingrained in our daily schedules.
If you’ve paid much attention to diet and fitness trends over the last several years, you may have noticed an increasing number of people advocating eating more than 3 meals and eating them more frequently. I’ve seen a plethora of articles advising people to eat 5, 7, or even 9 ‘meals’ a day. Of course, many of these meals are nothing more than glorified snacks, but that’s not the point. The point is that people are being encouraged to eat more frequently. Snacking during the day is acceptable—or even encouraged—as long as a person stays within their daily calorie limit
Many in the health world refer to such diets as ‘grazing’. Proponents claim that grazing through the day has several health benefits. They claim that spreading out your consumption of calories can help control appetite, speed up the metabolism, and help with weight loss. Despite all of the hype, science is now showing that grazing is not all it’s cracked up to be.
A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition concluded that increased meal frequency (i.e. grazing) does not promote weight loss. Another study, published in the journal Obesity, found that those eating 6 meals a day had significantly higher blood-fat levels than those eating 3 meals a day. In addition, those eating only 3 meals had lower levels of triglycerides in their blood and lower insulin levels. Researchers in the Czech Republic actually found that eating 2 meals a day resulted in better weight loss than eating 6. They also noted that those eating 2 meals a day had a greater decrease in liver fat and better insulin sensitivity.
When looking at these studies it is important to consider something. These results occurred in studies that were carefully planned and executed to ensure that all participants (regardless of their number of meals) were eating the same amount of calories each day. However, in the real world, it may not be so easy for someone to snack their way through the day and keep their calorie intake low. Although someone may aspire to eat 5-7 small meals a day, it may easily turn into 5-7 medium meals a day. It’s not difficult to imagine how people eating more meals may end up consuming more calories.
The other issue is this: snack foods tend to have far more fat, sugar, and salt than the foods people would generally consume for meals. Although grazing diets encourage people to choose healthy snacks, busy people tend to make poor dietary choices. Right now, the average American is now getting 25% of their daily calories from snacks—that equates to a fourth ‘square meal’. In a world increasingly plagued with obesity and lifestyle diseases, encouraging snacking just doesn’t make sense.
Back to the Basics – Eat Breakfast
Researchers in the Czech Republic, who we referenced above, came to an interesting conclusion after their study on meal frequency. They reported, “Our results support the ancient proverb: ‘Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper’”. Is it possible that we really don’t need new diet advice at all? Perhaps we simply need to get back to the basics.
The importance of a good breakfast has been recognized for many years. Although skipping breakfast may be a trend, it is not wise to do so. Harvard researchers discovered that students who at breakfast “Were significantly more attentive in the classroom, earned higher grades in math, and had significantly fewer behavioral and emotional problems.”
One major problem is that we don’t know how to craft a good breakfast. Coffee and a donut won’t cut it. We need a good meal in the morning to give us energy and to get our metabolism going again. When we don’t eat the right things for breakfast, we inevitably get hungry and start to snack. This sets us up for failure for the rest of the day. Once we start snacking, it is hard to stop. Our blood sugar begins to get out of whack and as a consequence, we have trouble controlling our appetite. At the end of the day we’re still hungry so we have a huge meal…which our bodies end up storing as fat.
The Simplest Diet
Taking the time to have a healthy breakfast will set you up for dietary success for the rest of the day. Be sure to base your breakfast on whole grains, nuts, and a bowl full of different types of fruit. These foods are full of fiber and will keep you full until lunch—this means there’s no need for snacking your way through the morning.
Later in the day, have a good-sized lunch and follow up with a rather small dinner. Our bodies need food during the day for energy; eating a large dinner an hour or two before bed simply doesn’t make sense. A small dinner is all you need and you’ll actually sleep better without that food churning in your stomach. Remember, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.”
If you’re still having trouble with snacking remember to drink enough water. Many times we misinterpret our body’s signals and think we are hungry when we are actually thirsty. The next time you’re hungry, drink a glass of water and wait 20 minutes. You may be surprised to see your ‘hunger’ disappear. In the case that you are really hungry, eat a piece of fresh fruit or some vegetables with hummus.
Following this plan will give you much better results than the majority of fad diets you’ll find on the internet—and you won’t even have to rearrange your mealtimes. Stick to it and you’ll find an improvement in your health and quality of life.
If you’re looking for breakfast inspiration, here are a few recipes worth checking out: