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Meal frequency myths: How often should you actually eat?

Breaking down the science around meal frequency.

How Often Should You Eat? | Juniper

In the world of nutrition and weight loss, how often one should eat is a controversial and age-old topic.

There are advocates for a range of different approaches — from eating multiple small meals throughout the day to skipping meals with intermittent fasting — but meal frequency doesn't have a one-size-fits-all approach.

That's why here at Juniper, we're diving deep into eating patterns and pulling out all the stops to figure out how many meals are optimal for a healthy lifestyle.

Honour your individuality

Instead of diving into the latest science on how the body processes and digests food from the get-go, let's first consider the fact that your body has unique needs. Although we all need food to survive, we all have vastly different metabolic rates, nutritional needs, and energy levels.

Throw in factors like age, sex, occupation, health, and ancestry, and you'll find that your body requires a wildly different approach to nutrition and eating than your next-door neighbour, your siblings, and your spouse.

Think about it: some people thrive off consuming a substantial meal each morning, while others don't feel the fire of hunger when they first wake up and rarely eat breakfast.

According to functional nutrition, this is referred to as bio-individuality, and it taps into the concept that what works for you, might not work for everyone else [1]. It applies to everything — from the environments we live in, to the work we do, and yes, even the food we eat and when we eat it.

So, where did the concrete concept of eating 3 meals a day come from?

The 3-meal structure

The idea of having 3 meals a day likely stemmed from Ancient Rome and Greece, shifting through the Industrial Revolution and finding its feet in modern-day culture as a norm that society generally adheres to.

While there are many different ways to ensure your daily intake of nutritional needs is being met, the 3 meal frequency is generally popular because it fits our busy 9-5 lifestyle.

Marissa Kai Miluk, a registered dietitian nutritionist from the US, says that the concept of eating 3 meals a day simply comes down to maths [2] and the body's ability to take on the needed amount of nutrients.

"Across all peer-reviewed research and health practices, 3 meals a day is a general recommendation to encourage consistent, adequate energy intake," Miluk said.

"Unless someone is seriously lacking in time or safe access to food, I would not recommend eating less than 3 meals a day, as that would require a large intake in 1 sitting in order to meet basic needs," she added.

With the average adult human needing over 2000 calories per day, there are only so many opportunities for a meal in a 16-hour awake period — so what does this mean for other eating patterns like intermittent fasting, smaller meals and more frequent meals?

Smaller and more frequent meals

While it can be a mission in this day and age, eating smaller and more frequent meals can work wonders for some people.

Despite how it sounds, this approach doesn't mean you're grazing all day, every day. Instead, it simply means that you're committed to consuming 3 balanced meals per day while making space for healthy snacks or smaller meals in between.

For people who are under-nourished or emaciated, this can be a great approach as it keeps the body's 'gas tank' full enough for sustained energy throughout the day. This is also a great way to keep bad snacking habits at bay and silence food chatter.

Think about it: if you've just had a nutritious, healthy lunch and you get a mid-afternoon hunger pang at 3pm, a meal-prepped healthy snack can save you from an unwanted sugar hit. If you have pre-planned balanced (and satisfying) meals and snacks to look forward to throughout the day, chances are that you’ll spend less time thinking about what you’re going to eat next.

Research also suggests that, with more frequent eating, blood sugar is better controlled [3]. More than 3 meals per day might also be able to keep type 2 diabetes at bay, according to research from the British Journal of Nutrition.

For those with gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), eating up to 6 meals per day can reduce symptoms and even lessen the effects of health conditions like chronic fatigue [4].

Eating larger, fewer meals

On the other side of the spectrum, a lot of folks also swear by eating larger meals only a few times a day. Hand-in-hand with intermittent fasting, there are a few positives to this approach, but a few red flags to watch out for, too.

Let's start with the good stuff: according to research, eating less often can reduce chronic inflammation and the risk of chronic disease [5]. It can also help boost circadian rhythms which helps sleep.

Eating 2 or 3 main meals within a 12-hour period is also apparently linked to a lower risk of obesity [6] and cardiovascular disease, so that's a definite win.

But let's take a look at the other side of things. If one is eating only 2 or 3 meals throughout the day, and their metabolic rate is on fire, they're likely going to feel hunger cues.

And triggering hunger cues without aiding them can lead to stress and inflammation. On another note, living by strict rules regarding snacking can lead to negative emotional effects, yo-yo dieting, and even disordered eating.

It's also important to remember that eating fewer meals doesn't necessarily mean less calorie intake. Across the board, many studies have shown that those who eat 1 large meal per day eat just as many calories as those who eat 3-6 small meals.

Does eating frequently increase your metabolic rate?

Now let's get into the nitty-gritty of it all — does eating frequently increase your metabolism?

Sorry to burst your bubble, but there's no scientific evidence that shows that it does. Metabolic rate refers to the number of calories your body needs to perform its basic functions properly, like breathing, circulating blood, and maintaining organ function.

When we eat a meal, our body also needs to consume it, which triggers a process called TEF (thermic effect of food).

However, studies have found no significant difference in TEF between frequent and infrequent eating patterns. A range of factors like meal composition [7], total calorie intake, and individual variations in metabolism may influence the TEF more significantly than eating frequency alone.

What's the deal with eating breakfast?

Out of all of the meals in a day, breakfast is the trickiest for many people. As the first meal of the day, this is the food that is consumed after an overnight fast.

Providing important nutrients to kickstart the day and boost the metabolism, breakfast is also said to support cognitive function and maintain overall health.

While studies surrounding the efficacy of losing weight and eating breakfast, it's important to consider the fact that avoiding breakfast definitely does make one hungrier and more prone to overeating during the day.

How often should you eat when you're trying to lose weight?

Here's where it gets a little more complicated. Despite the concept of weight gain being largely caused by overeating, studies have actually shown that the biggest culprit in our high-fat society is the food we're eating in the modern-day world [8].

Many of us are eating packaged foods that are filled with carbohydrates that fall high on the glycemic index, leading us to experience sharp spikes in insulin and suppression of glucagon.

So, what does this mean exactly? Well, this mechanism tells our fat cells to store calories instead of using them, which triggers the body to experience hunger cues when it's really not hungry.

At the core, by eating a diet high in processed foods, we're numbing our natural urges for food and having our senses hijacked by hormones.

So whether you eat a couple of meals per day, or you're sticking to the hard and fast 3-meal frequency rule, it's unlikely that it's making a huge difference to your weight maintenance and weight loss goals.

What's the bottom line?

Well, we might have left you feeling a little more confused (and a little more hungry) than you started off. But as you can see, there's strong scientific evidence to support almost every meal timing method under the sun.

That's why it's important to always come back to your individual needs. If you have no idea where to start, try tapping into your own body.

While it sounds absurd, monitor what happens when you go to eat a meal: are you actually hungry? Do you feel the hunger pangs? Stopping to pause, check in, and ask yourself some questions can make a world of a difference in how you feel and how often you should eat.

It's also good to start paying attention to the way you're eating and what you're eating, too. If you notice you are starving beyond belief between meals, try adding in a small protein-filled snack like a hard-boiled egg or a piece of fruit to get you through. Juniper's Nourish Shakes are also a great option for a satisfying and protein-packed meal replacement.

Aiming to make your meals balanced and high in quality proteins, fats, and high-fibre carbohydrates can also keep you going throughout the day.

If you're struggling to lose weight, or you're just looking for guidance on where to start, we'd love to have you over at Juniper’s Weight Reset Programme. Combining clinically proven weight loss medication with tailored support from a team of professionals, health tracking so you can measure your progress, and access to a private weight loss community, this programme is designed to help you lose weight and keep it off.

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