When and how much to eat each meal if you are trying to lose weight?

If you are also someone who is so keen to lose weight, you need to first understand what your body needs and how much meals you can feed it in order to stay healthy and lose weight. Some dieters believe the key to weight loss is eating three meals a day without any snacks in between. Others think six smaller meals eaten throughout the day stabilize hunger and blood sugar. Who is right?

According to a new study published in the journal Obesity, researchers found that eating six meals a day does not control hunger any better than eating three meals. And as for claims that eating smaller meals throughout the day keeps metabolism active all day long, studies published by The British Journal of Nutrition found it was the number of calories consumed that mattered most, not the frequency of meals. If you want to lose weight, nutritionists recommended eating foods that are rich in protein and fiber. These foods take longer to digest, which keeps you feeling full longer.

But as to whether you should eat three times a day or six, there’s no hard and fast rule.  Some people like to eat frequent smaller meals and some like to eat larger meals. Both approaches can work. In the end, nutritionists say that the quality and quantity of your calories is what counts, not how often you dine.

Meal myths

1. Meal myth 1- Eating more frequently will increase metabolism

Individuals who eat multiple meals throughout the day often cite an increase in metabolic rate as the reason for doing so. However, can increasing the number of times you eat each day really speed up your metabolic rate and help with weight loss? Several studies have investigated this question, and the results are fairly conclusive. When consuming the same total calories split between two versus six meals, one versus three versus five meals, or two versus 3-5 meals, there was no difference in metabolic rate in overweight or obese individuals. Furthermore, no difference in metabolic rate was seen between consuming 2 or 7 meals daily in participants of a healthy weight.

The truth behind increasing metabolism

Increasing meal frequency does not increase metabolic rate when dietary intake is matched. In other words, total calories consumed count more than frequency! Consume a number of meals that allows you to meet your nutritional needs consistently each day, and don’t stress over needing to eat every 2-3 hours.

2. Meal myth 2- Eating 5-6 smaller meals a day will aid in weight loss

You may have been told before that eating 5-6 mini meals a day will help you achieve your fat-loss goals faster. This sounds great in theory—eat more frequently, and still lose weight! However, findings from studies looking at this topic aren’t so positive.

The majority of the studies investigating the effects of meal frequency on weight loss have been performed in overweight and obese populations. When daily calorie intake was matched, no difference in weight loss between one versus nine meals, three versus six meals, one versus three versus five meals, two versus 3-5 meals, or three versus six meals has been observed. For individuals with a healthy body weight, no difference in weight change was observed when consuming one versus three and two versus nine meals per day. Furthermore, no difference in weight loss between one versus five meals was observed in dieting participants of healthy body weight.

The truth behind weight loss

Meal frequency doesn’t appear to have an effect on weight maintenance or weight loss when calorie intake is matched. Focus on consuming fewer calories than you are expending for weight loss, rather than the number of meals you are consuming.

3. Meal myth 3- More meals means more muscle growth

Many individuals consume more meals throughout the day in an attempt to build more muscle. Based on studies looking at the rate of muscle protein synthesis—the rate at which protein is being made in the muscle, which means more muscle growth—following feeding, several researchers have suggested that a meal frequency of 3-5 meals daily, with protein intake evenly distributed, is optimal to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis rates and therefore muscle growth. However, these studies have all been acute, meaning they gave subjects one protein-filled meal, tracked rates of protein synthesis for a few hours, and then called it a day. (OK, it’s not quite that simple, but you get the general point.) What we really need to look at is more long-term data to see if, over time, the number of meals you eat a day has a significant impact on muscle growth.

Looking at studies lasting anywhere from 2-8 weeks, for both overweight individuals and individuals with a healthy BMI, it doesn’t appear that the number of meals consumed per day has a significant impact on lean mass. Even for individuals who are dieting, eating six meals a day doesn’t appear to be more beneficial than eating three meals when it comes to maintaining muscle mass. Based on these studies, it doesn’t appear that meal frequency has an effect on muscle mass. However, it should be noted that the previously mentioned studies were not done in athletes who regularly lift weights.

To date, only one study has investigated the effects of meal frequency and muscle mass in physically active individuals. Researchers out of Nagoya University (Japan) recruited male boxers and had them consume 1,200 calories a day while dieting for a fight. Half of the participants consumed six meals a day, while the other half consumed two meals a day. After two weeks, there was greater muscle retention with six meals a day.16

It should be noted here that calorie intake was only 1,200 calories a day and protein intake was only 60 grams a day (roughly 0.45 grams per pound of body weight), both of which are far lower than most males who are dieting with the goal of muscle retention. Therefore, these results need to be interpreted with caution, and further research is needed on meal frequency in athletes.

The truth behind muscle growth

Meal frequency doesn’t seem to have a significant effect on muscle mass when dietary intake is constant; however, more research is needed in athletes who are lifting weights. Focus on consuming adequate calorie and protein intake (around 30 grams of protein per meal) while increasing strength in the gym to maximize muscle growth.

To Eat Breakfast, or Not to Eat Breakfast

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” – sound familiar? Conventional wisdom dictates that breakfast is a necessity, that it jump starts your metabolism for the day and helps you lose weight. Observational studies consistently show that breakfast skippers are more likely to be obese than people who eat breakfast. But correlation does not equal causation. This data does not prove that breakfast helps you lose weight, just that eating breakfast is associated with a lower risk of being obese.

This is most likely due to the fact that breakfast skippers tend to be less health conscious overall, perhaps opting for a doughnut at work and then having a big meal at McDonald’s at lunch. Everyone “knows” that breakfast is good for you, therefore people who have healthy habits overall are more likely to eat breakfast. The fact is that there is NO physiological need for breakfast. It does not “jump start” metabolism and there is nothing special about breakfast compared to other meals. If you’re hungry in the morning, eat breakfast. If not, don’t… just make sure to eat healthy for the rest of the day.

Ways to set your meals

  1. Set your calorie targets. Remember, to lose weight plan to expend more calories than you take in each day. Most people need to subtract about 500 calories per day from their diet to lose 1 pound per week. Learn how to make smart choices when dining out and how to cook healthy recipes at home.
  2. Start a food diary.  Write down what you eat as well as the times of day and portions in a food diary or tracker. This will not only help you keep track of your meals and calorie intake but may point out some bad habits you didn’t know you had. Do you fill your afternoons with high carb and sugary snacks? Turn to these healthier alternatives. Are your portion sizes pushing you over your calorie goal?  Learn how to easily identify correct portions by tracking what you eat.
  3. Get moving.  It’s important to your overall health to get regular exercise. And it also can be a key to losing – or maintaining – weight.  Get going with these easy tips to get active at home, work and play. And check out how many calories some common activities spend.