One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is in regard to meal frequency. Is it better to eat three or five meals per day? Is it okay to do fasting? Should I work out while I fast? The majority of questions are centered around how they should be eating. It comes down to supporting your specific lifestyle and goals.
Set Calorie Goals
In order to determine the best way for someone to eat to support their lifestyle, the first thing we establish is a calorie goal. At the end of the day, no matter what the meal frequency is, there must be a caloric deficit in order to lose weight. Deficit, meaning that you will take in fewer calories than you burn in a day. However, if your goal is to gain muscle, you will need a bit of a calorie surplus. We start by setting a calorie range to find out where they should begin in accordance with their goals.
I prioritize protein next. I usually use gram per kilogram of bodyweight recommendations that are specific to their goals. Depending on whether you are weight training, or an athlete will help determine your protein requirements. Typically, the range falls between 0.8 – 1.5 per pound of bodyweight.
Next, we narrow our focus to macronutrient targets. We begin to take a deeper dive into fat and carbohydrate requirements, again subject to what your goals are.
Once these boxes are checked, I start looking at meal frequency. I’ll look at current behaviors to see if you like to nibble or if you are someone who doesn’t eat all day. For example, I have nurses that are sometimes unable to eat, so they end up eating a big meal once or twice a day. People often ask me these questions about whether or not they should eat that way.
First and foremost, eating more frequent meals does not in fact increase your metabolism. This myth was busted a long time ago.
While increase in frequency may not increase or affect metabolic rate, some believe it helps control appetite and improves glucose/insulin metabolism. As a result, it can reduce cravings. I’m referring to the buzz or high after eating something that contains carbohydrates and/or sugar, followed by an abrupt crash.
Sometimes going for prolonged periods of time without any food causes your blood sugar levels to drop. These individuals may do better with five or six meals per day. Alternatively, you have people that feel eating more will often only increase the opportunity for indulgence.
There is NOT a Right or Wrong
Once again it comes down to whether you are trying to have a caloric deficit or surplus to match your goal. Some think that eating multiple times per day will help boost muscle mass. Again, it comes down to whether or not you are eating an adequate number of calories. Small, frequent meals and fasting both can aid in losing weight, as long as appropriate calorie and macronutrient goals are maintained.
In general, if a person is trying to lose weight, lowering meal frequency may be helpful because it allows for fewer opportunities to eat. When it comes to gaining muscle, some people need to eat more regularly to meet higher caloric needs.
What Fits Your Lifestyle?
It all comes down to personal preference. There is no right or wrong. Take fasting for example (I love to fast). People ask if they should fast or resort to calorie restriction. A calorie restriction means reducing your energy intake by 20-40% fewer calories you are consuming each day.
The other option is fasting. Intermittent Fasting, first and foremost, is a term used to describe eating patterns where little to no calories are consumed for longer time periods. The fasting window can vary from 12 hours to several days. There are several variations to experiment with including alternate day fasting, 12 hours fasting / 12 hours feasting, 16 hours fasting / 8 hours feasting, etc. People have been doing this for a very, very long time. All the way back to the ancient Greeks, Romans and even Benjamin Franklin.
Intermittent fasting for overweight adults has been often reported as a superior method for losing weight. It gives them fewer chances to overindulge. Let’s say you partake in the common 16/8 hour split. Sixteen hours of fasting followed by an eight-hour window feeding window. If you have a busy life with work and extracurriculars, then you will naturally expose yourself to fewer opportunities to overindulge.
If you try intermittent fasting, make sure to consume enough calories to support your lifestyle goals. For me, I like to work out. Therefore, it’s imperative to make sure that I’m getting enough in during my eight-hour window to fuel my workouts and continue building muscle.
NO One-Size Fits All
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to meal frequency. It has everything to do with your lifestyle and what kind of person you are. If you enjoy eating a lot, prioritize your protein while keeping the other macros in check. If you like eating larger meals, make sure to properly time out your activity to give your body time to digest and absorb the food.
There’s no one way to eat when it comes to meal frequency, it’s all up to you.