Breakfast, lunch and dinner are the holy trinity of mealtimes. However, recent trends have challenged the trio, attesting to a variety of new approaches to eating throughout the day.
These alternative mealtime philosophies aim to break free from the traditional constraints of breakfast, lunch and dinner, offering individuals more flexibility and personalized options to suit their lifestyle and dietary preferences.
But what type of meal plan is most beneficial to our overall health and weight loss support? If you’re wondering, how many meals should I eat a day, the answer will vary depending on your unique needs and health goals. However, we’re exploring a few of them below.
The Three Meal Theory
Historically, nutrition experts have recommended eating three balanced meals a day. These should each consist of 350 to 600 calories per meal. In addition to the three meals, it’s recommended to add a few snacks in between eating times, each 150 to 200 calories.
One of the key advantages of eating three meals a day is that it provides a sense of routine and predictability. By establishing set meal times, individuals can plan their day around these anchor points, ensuring that they allocate dedicated time for nourishment. The regularity of this mealtime structure also helps to maintain stable energy levels and prevents prolonged periods of hunger or overeating.
This comes down to the idea of meal timing, in which it’s believed that external triggers (i.e. eating food) can influence the body’s internal clocks (circadian rhythm). Thus, it’s also believed that these internal clocks, which are located in organs throughout the body, play a vital role in regulating metabolic rhythms.
As such, consistent eating times may improve your metabolic health.
Moreover, consuming three balanced meals allows for a more even distribution of macronutrients and essential micronutrients throughout the day. Each meal can include a combination of nutrients, providing the body with a steady supply that supports various physiological functions. These nutrients include:
Some researchers have also found that low meal frequency, compared to regular grazing or snacking, may be linked to a lower risk of certain medical conditions.
The Importance of a Big Breakfast
Eating most of your calories early in the day, as opposed to saving your biggest meal for dinner, may help you lose weight naturally and improve satiety levels, according to a study conducted by the University of Aberdeen.
That’s because some research suggests that night is not the optimal time to eat. The theory states that as it becomes darker, our internal clocks begin to transition the body into a more restful, or sleep, state. As a result, your metabolism may begin to slow down, which can hinder the body’s ability to digest solid food and burn fat and calories.
Breakfast also kickstarts the metabolism after an overnight fast. It provides the necessary fuel to energize the body and brain, enhancing cognitive function and concentration throughout the morning.
In addition to eating your largest meal during the day, it’s recommended to avoid late-night snacking. When you wind down with a glass of wine and a bowl of your favorite chips, your body’s ghrelin levels spike. This hormone is primarily responsible for triggering hunger cues within the body. At the same time, leptin levels decrease. This hormone is released to tell your body that it feels full and satiated.
Like the three-meal theory, intermittent fasting operates on a set schedule. However, rather than prioritizing dedicated windows for eating, intermittent fasting prioritizes designated periods of fasting.
According to proponents of the method, our bodies have naturally evolved to go without solid food for long periods of time. In essence, intermittent fasting is humans returning to their roots. While there are a variety of intermittent fasting styles, the most common include:
16/8 method – This method involves fasting for 16 hours and restricting eating to an eight-hour window each day. Typically, individuals skip breakfast and consume their meals between, for example, 12:00 pm and 8:00 pm.
5:2 diet – In this approach, individuals eat normally for five days of the week and restrict their calorie intake to around 500 to 600 calories for two days. These fasting days can be consecutive or spaced throughout the week.
Eat-stop-eat – This method involves fasting for 24 hours once or twice a week. For example, a person may have dinner on Monday and then fast until dinner on Tuesday.
Alternate day fasting – With this approach, individuals alternate between regular eating days and fasting days. On fasting days, they consume very few calories, typically around 500 to 600 calories.
One meal a day (OMAD) – As the name suggests, individuals following the OMAD approach consume only one meal within a 1 to 2-hour eating window each day. They fast for the remaining hours.
Warrior diet – This method involves fasting for 20 hours and consuming one large meal within a 4-hour eating window. Additionally, individuals may have small snacks of raw fruits and vegetables during the fasting period.
So how exactly does it work? During a fasting state, the body’s energy source, sugar, becomes depleted. For fuel, the body will begin burning its fat stores, instead.
All that said, it’s important to consult with a healthcare provider before embarking on a fasting diet, as intermittent fasting is not suitable for every person. Additionally, you’ll want to ensure that each eating session includes meals that are packed with the necessary nutrients and the adequate calories your body needs to function properly.
Intuitive eating is a sustainable eating approach that prioritizes your body’s internal cues over a set of external rules or dietary guidelines. When practicing intuitive eating, the focus is on developing a healthy relationship with food and your body.
In other words, it defies the idea of dieting.
Rather, you pay attention to natural cues to decide when to eat (and how much), such as your:
Feelings of satiety
A review of 97 studies on intuitive eating found that this approach is associated with:
Positive body image and self-esteem
Lower rates of disordered eating
Higher overall health and well-being
There’s also an element of mindfulness that comes with intuitive eating. In addition to honoring your hunger and cravings, it’s also encouraged to stop the cycle of eating just to feel better emotionally. Rather than reaching for a bag of pretzels when you’re feeling stressed and satiated, you can reach for your favorite book, practice yoga or go on a walk.
Also, leaders of the intuitive eating movement encourage practitioners to practice self-acceptance. Rather than punishing your body with no food when you’re not feeling your best, it’s recommended to treat your body with kindness and provide it with the care and nutrition it needs.
Snacking or Grazing Throughout The Day
Some researchers believe that eating four to six small meals or snacks throughout the day can increase your metabolic rhythm, thus boosting fat and calorie burn. The approach involves eating at undefined times, with undefined potions and short intervals in between.
However, this may not be the most beneficial meal-timing method.
Research has found that eating frequently and consistently throughout the day increases caloric intake and decreases the quality of food consumed — just think of all the snack foods out there that you’d naturally gravitate to. More often, these foods are high in sugars, salt and unsaturated fats that can negatively impact your health.
Another study found that eating three 800-calorie meals a day will raise your metabolism just as much as six 400-calorie meals, giving little weight to the grazing approach.
What Should You Include in Every Meal?
Whether you follow the principles of intuitive eating or adhere to a specific mealtime pattern, nutrition is critical — no matter when you decide to eat. A healthy diet consists of a variety of nutrient-dense foods that provide essential vitamins, minerals and macronutrients necessary for optimal health and well-being.
A healthy diet typically includes:
Fresh fruit and vegetables – These are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fiber. Aim to include a variety of colorful fresh fruit and vegetables in your meals to ensure a wide range of nutrients. More specifically, experts recommend eating at least five portions of fruits and vegetables a day.
Whole grains – Foods like whole wheat, oats, brown rice, quinoa and barley provide complex carbohydrates, fiber and important micronutrients. They also offer sustained energy and support digestive health.
Lean proteins – Incorporate sources of lean protein such as poultry, fish, legumes, tofu and low-fat dairy products. Lean protein is essential for muscle repair and growth, immune function and hormone production.
Healthy fats – Include sources of unsaturated fats, such as avocados, nuts, seeds and olive oil. These fats provide energy, support brain health and help absorb fat-soluble vitamins.
Dairy or dairy alternatives – Opt for low-fat or non-fat dairy products, or choose plant-based alternatives like almond milk or soy milk fortified with calcium and vitamin D.
You’ll also want to fortify your meals with plenty of high-fiber, starchy foods, such as potatoes, bread, rice and pasta. Foods high in fiber can foster a healthy gut microbiome and help fuel your body for longer periods of time.
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There’s no one set approach to eating that will meet every person’s unique health and fitness needs. That said, there are a variety of methods that experts recommend, such as eating three meals a day, intermittent fasting and intuitive eating.
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