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If you’ve been trying to lose weight and you’re confused about how many meals or snacks to be eating per day, then this episode of the Smart Nutrition Made Simple Show is for you…
For those of you that don’t know me, my name is Ben Brown and I’m the owner of BSL Nutrition. We are an online nutrition and fitness coaching company that helps you change your belief system around what it means to be healthy…
And in this particular case, it’s time to put to rest some of the conventional beliefs surrounding meal frequency and fat loss.
In this episode we’re going to discuss:
- some of the popular conventional wisdom around meal frequency
- My observations from coaching hundreds of clients over the past 15 years
- And what the science and our experience suggests is the best way to determine how many meals per day you should be consuming, why, and how to start to build the skills necessary to create your own personal meal scheduling system
Before we move further, I think it’s important to acknowledge why this even matters…?
I mean we’ve talked ad nauseum about the importance of just needing to create a calorie deficit for weight loss and so, it shouldn’t matter how many times per day we eat, whether it’s 2 or it’s 10, as long as we’re in a deficit, we’ll lose weight…right?!
And while theoretically this makes sense, in practice, it becomes a different story, because behaviorally, there are limitations to what we can realistically commit to WHICH IS WHAT MATTERS MOST.
Put differently, even if the science said that eating 6x a day was best, it wouldn’t matter because it's just not practical for the vast majority of us… and so, it’s important for us to titrate down the science to reasonable actions that help us develop skills to make consistent progress … which is what we’re all about here at BSL Nutrition.
So, back to the conventional wisdom…
We’ve heard that you need to eat 6x per day to “stoke the metabolism”
We’ve heard that you need to graze on small portions so you don’t over eat
We’ve heard that you shouldn’t eat breakfast
We’ve heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day
We’ve heard that you should intermittent fast daily
We’ve heard that we should just have bars for breakfast and lunch and then have a “sensible dinner”
And the list goes on and on…
So it’s no surprise that we’re confused about which direction to go so we can finally figure out how to lose the weight once and for all.
And this is where we need to move from understanding the data to real-world decision-making.
For most of us listening to this podcast, there are a few fundamental things that are relevant when it comes to long-term weight loss and behavior change:
- We need to find realistic ways to manage our calorie intake daily without necessarily having to track every morsel of food consumed. Don’t get me wrong, we believe strongly that food tracking, for many, can be the highest ROI driver of creating more awareness around portion sizes and weight loss limiting behaviors but…We also fully acknowledge that for many, this can create undue stress and exacerbate unhealthy eating patterns, which is why we often both substitute these skills and/or help leverage the tracking to create the very skills I’m sharing with you today
- We need to learn how to build satisfying meals without worrying about overly restrictive food rules that are unrealistic to follow long-term or having to think incessantly about food all day long
- We need a manageable way to eat daily that gives us good energy, helps us control hunger from meal to meal, AND fits within our hectic daily lifestyle
All too often, especially based on the plethora of popular meal strategies I listed previously, we have the tendency to set ourselves up for disaster, usually by undereating from meal to meal, trying to consume too little for too many meals, or simply starving ourselves early in the day only to find ourselves overeating at night because we have no control over our hunger or fullness cues.
Imagine what it would feel like to be able to eat a reasonable amount of food from meal to meal, feel perfectly satisfied for 5-6 hours between meals without finding yourself consumed by thoughts of treats, snacks, or obsessively thinking about where your next meal is coming from, and have stable energy and experience healthy weight loss in the process…
If you’re a fan of 80’s hip-hop, then you’d know that De La Soul said it best in their popular album 3 feet high and rising with their song “3 is the magic number”.
It seems that 3-4 meals per day is the secret meal formula for finding your satiety sweet spot that will allow you to effectively manage your calorie intake enough to lose weight.
Let’s discuss why that is…
For many of us, the conventional wisdom around eating more times per day as a way to both control our calorie intake and stoke the metabolism has been commonplace, however, research suggests that this actually isn’t the case.
What happens when we eat more frequently? We just end up eating more calories…
Research shows that the more frequently a person eats, the higher their total calorie intake tends to be, and the greater odds they are overweight or obese. Research has confirmed that there is no metabolic or satiety advantage to eating 6 times a day vs. 3 times a day, and 3 meals work better for appetite control at an equivalent calorie level.
Additionally, it’s been proven that snacking doesn’t actually help you better manage your appetite from meal to meal, rather, it just seems to add calories to your total intake.
So you might as well do away with snacking as those extra calories aren’t doing you any favors.
The reason for this has a lot to do with our hunger and fullness hormones, particularly, leptin and ghrelin. Essentially, what we know is that we need to eat enough at meals to stimulate the hormones and the brain to sense fullness, adequate nutrition, and thereby stimulate satiety so that we can have stable energy, blood sugar levels, and experience fullness for 3-5 or more hours before our next meal.
And this is where developing the skills to effectively acknowledge and manage your hunger signals becomes paramount…
Eating a highly processed, highly calorically dense, and low fiber meal like Mcdonald's will have a very different hormonal impact on your hunger and satiety signals than something lower in calories and higher in both nutritional value and fiber, like a lean steak, potato, and bowl of fruit
But that’s a topic for another conversation as what you choose to consume at those meals will be the main determining factor in influencing your nutrition decisions later in the day, or the week, by virtue of how you feel from meal to meal.
If you’re currently only eating 2 meals per day coupled with periodic snacks throughout, then you may consider committing to 3 square meals with anywhere from 3-5 hours in between.
Similarly, if you find yourself grazing all day long and not really committing to any one meal, or perhaps just an oversized dinner and snacking until bedtime, then you should figure out how to build out more substantial meals early in the day to help curb the hunger and lack of control you may be experiencing at night.
And yes, if there’s any one clinical pearl that you can take away from this episode, it's that what you choose to eat, or not eat, strongly influences the decisions you make later in the day and thereby how you manage your calorie intake…. Which is why we almost always suggest you start with a protein-rich, satisfying breakfast.
Here’s how I’d suggest building out your framework to get started.
First, factor in a 12-hr window between the time you wake up and your last meal… let’s say 7 am to 7 pm as an example.
If you’re currently eating and snacking all day long, then you may want to start with 4 meals spread out evenly, say 8 am, 11 am, 2 pm, and 6 pm…
Or if you find you struggle to eat any solid meals except for dinner, you may just start with a solid breakfast, lunch, and dinner, say 8 am, 1 pm, and 6 pm. This might feel like you’re eating more earlier in the day, but it should also help curb the volume of food you consume later, thereby reducing your total calorie intake, which, as I said, is the name of the game.
Listen, this is going to take practice and commitment. You’ll need to experiment with what works best for you as it will take a couple of weeks for you to get comfortable with changing your eating patterns as well as start to observe how you feel from meal to meal.
Or, if that feels too overwhelming, maybe just start by adding a solid breakfast and not eating again until lunch…put that on repeat for a week or two until you get comfortable with it and then move to the next meal.
Or skip the mid-afternoon snack, or just add it to your lunch and see how you feel pushing through until dinner.
Regardless, there are a few things that you’ll want to pay attention to:
- Are you getting hungry from meal to meal? If so, great, that’s actually a really good sign that your hormones are functioning the way they should be. This is a perfectly normal and healthy feeling that you’ll need to get comfortable with experiencing as it is necessary when we’re working to lose fat and control our calorie intake. If you’re too hungry, try eating a bit more at your previous meal. If you’re not hungry, try eating a bit less
- Is it actually hunger you’re experiencing? Oftentimes, especially mid-morning or afternoon when we’re caught up in work stress, tired, bored, or fatigued - it’s actually just a way for our body and brain to find a more pleasurable stimulus, like going for the caffeine, sweet, or salty snacks. Pay attention to these feelings, check-in with yourself and how you feel, and perhaps opt to drink some water, have a stretch, go for a walk, or lay down for a few minutes instead.
- What pre-existing behaviors drive your food decisions? A glass of wine after a long day? A handful of chips or trail mix when you’re in-between zoom calls? The mindless snacking while Netflix and chilling after the kids go to bed?
The beauty of committing to actual structured meals without snacking in between gives you the flexibility and freedom to eat the foods you want within reason, as well as help you establish some very reasonable and healthy boundaries around the foods that probably aren’t helping support your health and weight loss goals.
And because you have a clear-cut framework around when to eat and the freedom to decide how many meals and when are best for you and your schedule, you can now start to put in the work around building out the most satisfying and nutritious meals for you…
So that you can stay energized, satisfied, and control your calories without worrying about restricting foods, skipping meals, being hungry all the time, or constantly stressing about what and when to eat next.
Hopefully, that helps settle some of the confusion around how many meals to be eating for weight loss and how to start to build out your individual meal structure and if you need any help, we’re always here to support you…
Appreciate you tuning in and I’ll catch you in the next episode.
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