Some swear by snacks, others stick to three squares. A nutritionist settles the debate.
It can be hard to know how often to eat—whether you’re looking to gain size, trim down, or just get through the day continually energized. The idea of downing three squares and two snacks has been bandied about as often as eating six mini-meals a day. But which is ideal?
“Clients ask all the time if eating five or six times a day is necessary," says Brian St. Pierre, R.D., a fitness and nutrition coach with Precision Nutrition. “It seems daunting and many feel they don’t have time to think, plan, and prepare for that.”
According to St. Pierre, the idea of eating multiple mini-meals each day was based on early research. “There’s a thermic effect from eating. It bumps up your metabolism, so the thought was that by eating more frequently, you’d give your body a greater overall metabolic boost for the day, but it’s the total intake that matters.”
For example, a male requiring 3,000 calories a day could eat six 500-calorie meals or three 1000-calorie meals and that would translate to six smaller metabolic rises versus three bigger rises. At the end of the day, however, the thermic effect would be equal, St. Pierre explains.
There can be problems with either strategy. With the six-times-a-day scenario, you’re often eating every two to three hours and may perpetually feel like you just ate, but aren’t satisfied. On the flipside, eating too infrequently, with long stretches of time between meals, can lead to poor choices and overeating.
“It’s about finding that sweet spot. I advise clients to eat about four times a day," says St. Pierre. “That way there’s less meal prep. You can have breakfast at home, pack lunch and one snack to bring to the office, and then have dinner back home. It’s a good general rule of thumb but it’s really about figuring out what works for you.”
Identifying your ideal meal frequency can take some tinkering. Here, St. Pierre offers his tips: