How Many Meals Should You Eat Daily?

By Kyle Arsenault CSCS

My athletes are consistently asking how many meals they should be eating daily in order to maximize performance, shed fat, build massive amounts of quality muscle and pretty much dominate the athletic world…and turn a few heads as they strut down the beach.

With all of the information you hear about making sure blood sugar doesn’t spike and drop, how your body will go into starvation mode if you don’t eat every 2 hours, or how you should only be eating 1 meal per day as our body was built to survive during long periods without food (intermittent fasting), it is no wonder that my athletes are a bit confused as to which is best.

Well, to tell you the truth, it really doesn’t matter all that much!

Whichever number of meals that allows you to adhere to healthy eating principles, is easiest with your schedule and provides a sense of physiological (satiety) and mental (you should enjoy your food) satisfaction, well, that is the number of meals you should be eating daily.

But there are a few considerations when it comes to figuring out the ideal number of meals…

1-2 Meals Per Day:

You may have heard of intermittent fasting. This is when individuals will go long periods of time (14-48 hours) without eating and then consume large meals over a short feeding window (6-8 hours).

Positives: By eating only one to two meals daily, there is not much preparation or planning that has to be done. And, if you are planning on a large cheat meal (family party, night out on the town, etc), consuming one small meal and then your cheat meal allows you to not over consume too many calories during the day. Also, some research shows that the body reacts positively to this type of meal frequency (optimizing hormonal levels that promote fat loss and “cleanse” the body).

Negatives: By consuming only one to two meals it is likely that you will be “starving” (at least mentally) by the time your feeding window comes around. Many times this will result in indulging in less healthy choices. Also, some experience blood sugar fluctuations that result in subpar energy, performance, etc. Although you will only be eating one to two meals, you are more likely to over consume calories (again, many times calories of a lesser quality) as you know you won’t be eating for a long period of time. And for those looking to maximize muscle, you may experience an unwanted loss of muscle mass. Lastly, if you have any counterintuitive medical conditions or injuries, this meal frequency may leave you lacking necessary nutrients if you are not an experienced “faster.”

Conclusion: This meal frequency is best suited to those who exhibit a great deal of self-control and experience with nutritional regimen, are more geared towards fat loss and do not have counterintuitive medical conditions or injuries.

Now that is self control…is this you?!

3-4 Meals

Your classic “3 square meals” with an optional snack (I consider the snack a small meal).

Positives: This is the middle road of meal frequency. Not too much planning but enough that you will most likely need to prepare and pack at least one meal (lunch), unless you plan on eating out…make sure this is PLANNED and you stick to the healthy principles. By distributing your feedings over 3-4 meals throughout the day, you are likely eating every 4-6 hours which still prevents blood sugar spikes and drops (as long as you are consuming the right food options) and also allows you to sense hunger and eat a bit larger meal when compared to more frequent feedings (this provides more mental satisfaction).

Negatives:  Again, if you lack self-control you may be more likely to over eat during your meals. By only eating every 4-6 hours you leave yourself a large enough period of time to “sneak” snacks or give in to your sense of hunger and opt for less healthy, or too large of portions when it comes to feeding time.

The middle of the road when it comes to meal frequency

Conclusion: This is where I personally have landed when it comes to meal frequency. For years I was consuming 6-7 meals with great results, as it allowed me to more easily solidify self-control and healthy nutritional principles along with great physical results! But, I have found I am able to achieve the same physical results with 3-4 meals and also enjoy my food more. Plus, I do not have to pack as many meals! But again, I have been successful with 3-4 meals because I have learned to control myself, and PLAN, accordingly. Not only does 3-4 feedings allow for large enough meals to be satisfied both physically and mentally, but it also allows the readiness to eat again in a few hours.

5-7 Meals

Positives: You may have heard that consuming many small meals throughout the day keeps the metabolism up by providing “fuel for the fire.” It is true that there is a thermic effect of food when you feed (the body burns calories to convert and store calories) but the amount is not overly significant. The greatest benefits of eating so frequently are that you will always have a form of immediate energy and if you find yourself always ready to eat, well, you know that in 2-3 hours you will be eating again. This prevents overeating…and if your goal is to gain weight, you will actually be able to consume more calories throughout the day a bit easier.

Negatives: With so many meals throughout the day you will find yourself packing a lot of food. If you don’t mind spending a few minutes during the morning to pack your food for the day this may not be a big deal. And the other negative really comes down to satisfaction. When consuming this many meals, you typically never find yourself hungry or completely satisfied. Food is purely fuel (which is not a bad thing especially if you need to establish healthy eating principles).

Establish habits with more frequent meals and then decide which frequency is best for you!

Conclusion: This meal frequency is great for those who have the time to prep numerous meals, who knowingly lack self-control, are trying to shed fat, who are trying to gain weight but find it hard to consume enough calorie over less frequent feedings and who do not require a sense of satisfaction when it comes to food. This meal frequency allows for the easiest adherence to healthy principles and is a great place for most individuals to start before they transition to 3-4 (sometimes 3-5) meals per day.

So How Many Meals Should You Eat?

When it comes to fat loss, muscle gain, energy and overall health and performance, the number of meals you consume really comes down to what best suits your lifestyle. When it comes down to it, every approach will work, but only if you plan your meals, adhere to the principles of healthy eating and consume the appropriate amount of energy (calories) and nutrients to achieve and support your fitness goals.

I would like to hear which approach has or sounds like it will work for you. Post your comments below and share this article  with your friends and family on Facebook, Twitter and email.

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2 Responses to How Many Meals Should You Eat Daily?

  1. hydrosquall says:

    Thanks for the helpful overview. I did not know that the thermic effects from eating food were low, although I have heard that celery has a net negative calories when you compare the thermic effect to the energy provided.

    As a student athlete, I usually eat 4-5 meals per day usually because I feel hungry right after class finishes and need to fuel before practice, and occasionally need a meal after dinner because of schoolwork. These extra 2 (not “big 3”) meals are generally smaller than the other meals, but are bigger than what most would consider a “snack”.

    I would like to try intermittent fasting someday, though. I have heard that doing a fast helps you reset your circadian rhythms if you’ve spent too much time staying up late and need to get back to a normal sleeping rhythm.

    • momentumpt2 says:

      4-5 meals is definitely a solid approach. As an athlete and busy student the snacks (mini meals) in between the larger meals are encouraged to keep energy levels up. As always , it comes down more to what makes up those meals.

      I would suggest if you were going to try an IF approach that you do so out of season and start with a 14-16 hour fast. I have found the best introduction to IF is to stop eating after dinner, skip breakfast and have your first meal in the early afternoon. That way half of your fast is accomplished while asleep which makes it much more convenient mentally.

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