There are so many theories about how many times a day you should eat and I have heard them all. Six times a day, every two hours; every four hours; don’t eat after 7pm; don’t eat after 9pm…!
The truth is, it is important to eat regularly but there isn’t a generic one-size-fits-all rule that will work for everyone – we are all different. When it comes to the timing of your meals and how many times you need to eat in a day, this all depends on who you are, how many hours you are up for, what time you get up and go to bed, and when (and if!) you do exercise. Let me explain.
Why eat regularly?
Twenty-four hours a day your body is busy working, your heart is beating, kidneys are busy filtering your blood and your brain is active. Your body is constantly burning fuel. Obviously, though, most of us don’t eat every minute of every day (even if we would like to), so what happens is that we end up giving our body the energy and nutrients it needs via a number of meals and snacks. When you eat, your body will use some of the fuel from that meal or snack and then some for later to use between now and the next time you eat.
During the hours that you are awake, it is helpful to eat regularly to provide your body with a slow and steady supply of fuel which it can use right then and there. If you go hours and hours without eating, go ‘past hungry’ too often or only eat once or twice a day, you are asking a lot of your body to try and cope with supplying fuel to your brain, liver, kidneys and so on when you haven’t really eaten much. As much as you would like to think that when you ignore your hungry feelings and skip meals that your body miraculously burns off all your body fat – sorry, it doesn’t – doing this can be very unhelpful for your metabolism and also make it difficult for you to shift weight.
Getting the timing right
Now this is the highly individualised part. I will use myself as an example and look at a few other people I know to show you how this all works. I get up at 5.15am each morning and I got to bed about 9.30–10pm. Based on this, I eat around five to six times a day, this works for me, it is regular enough to supply me with fuel every few hours. My biggest meals are breakfast and lunch with a lighter dinner. This is because I am most active in the earlier part of the day (that is when I exercise and run around a lot) and in the evening, I am more sedentary and need less fuel. Ideally I have my evening meal a few hours before bed, not because it will independently make me fat it I eat it before I sleep, but because it takes several hours to be digested and you don’t make it easy for your body when you go to bed on a full stomach. At the weekend, I get up slightly later, go to bed at a similar time, so would adjust my balance of food intake to three to four meals/snacks.
My friend Lisa is a teacher, she gets up at 7am and goes to bed about 9.30pm. Based on this, she eats four to five times a day, every few hours. She goes to the gym after school finishes, about 5pm. Her afternoon tea is relatively substantial (so she has fuel for training and doesn’t pass out with hunger at the gym!) and she has a reasonable sized dinner after the gym to help her recover. Again, she tries to have her main meal a few hours before bed. Her meals earlier on in the day are lighter as she is less active in the earlier part of the day.
See…we are all different, THANK heavens! So time to think about your day and what will work for you to get the results you want.
Time to sort things out for you!
Claire Turnbull, BSc (Hons) Dietetics UK, NZ-registered nutritionist. Managing director of Mission Nutrition and Healthy Food Guide nutritionist.
For your very own personalised nutrition plan, support and advice, come and see one of our qualified and experienced dietitians/nutritionists at Mission Nutrition Clinics. Phone consultations available.