Eating Frequency and Weight Loss

“How many times per day should I be eating if I’m trying to lose weight?”

Weight loss continues to be the number one topic I’m asked about as a dietitian. This is one of the more common questions on that subject, and one that’s worth addressing.

The only thing that stays the same about the public’s nutrition beliefs is that nothing stays the same. For decades – and probably longer – the general consensus was that everyone should be eating their “three square meals” a day. European settlers brought this eating structure with them to North America, and it remained the standard for quite a long period of time.

That, of course, has changed. Snacking between meals appears to have first taken off in the 1970’s, with our cumulative snacking now making up about 25% of our daily calorie intake or roughly the equivalent of adding a fourth meal.

Many people have added snacks to their day in the hopes that eating more frequently will “rev up” their metabolism (as a quick note, any claim that something “revs up” metabolism, other than exercise, is probably false). Our bodies do burn energy when digesting food, but the amount and type of food matter more than how often we eat. Eating more often may just lead us to eat…more.

A good example of this is the relationship between breakfast and weight loss, which we’ve previously covered in more detail on this blog. People who consistently eat breakfast tend to weigh less, but if you simply add breakfast in without changing any other factors you’re more likely to gain weight.

Thinking about snacking similarly is helpful. If you’re adding in snacks, are you more likely to improve your eating pattern overall? Possibly. If you find yourself starving each night when you sit down for dinner, you may be prone to overeating at that time. In this case, a filling midafternoon snack might benefit you.

However, if you’re only mildly hungry for dinner, adding in an extra snack in the afternoon might just end up being extra. A common location for consuming “extra” snacks is the office, where potlucks and free donuts abound.

An important question to ask yourself is this: “When am I hungry?” If eating more frequently means eating at times when your body isn’t asking for food, it’s not a good idea. When posed the question, many people will hesitate to even acknowledge that they experience physical hunger throughout the day, as they eat so frequently their body rarely gets to that point.

If you are someone that has hunger signals throughout the day, pay attention to your fullness signals as well. If you’re eating more frequently but want to lose weight, your portions should be fairly small.

Intermittent fasting has seen a huge surge in popularity recently. This consists of limiting the number of hours per day you’re eating, often to a 4-8 hour window. This, of course, reduces the number of times someone would eat in a day, reversing course from the trend of eating more often. Intermittent fasting can be a useful approach for weight loss, but too small of a window may leave you low on energy and be unsustainable long-term.

The types of foods you choose are probably more important than the frequency of eating. A diet built around fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains will go a long way towards helping you feel full and controlling portions.

So, after 500-plus words, what’s the answer to the question?

There is no one answer, at least not one for everyone. The most helpful advice I can give is to try to work with what your body is telling you with both its hunger and fullness signals. Being smart about the types of foods you consume will help with this process. Eating more frequently doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss. Feel free to experiment with different eating patterns, although I don’t recommend an all-day fast. Don’t try to fit a square peg in a round hole, because a smart eating pattern is one you can maintain long-term.

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