How many times should I eat each day?

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… does your head hurt as much as mine trying to figure that one out?!

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 and when it comes to the timing of our meals and how many times we need to eat in a day, this all depends on who we are, how many hours we are up for, what time we get up and go to bed and when we 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 with a number of meals and snacks. When you eat, your body will use some of the fuel from that meal or snack and then store 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. This approach doesn’t magically melt fat off you either!

Getting the timing right – FOR YOU!

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 go 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 if 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 and go to bed at a similar time, so I eat three to four meals and snacks rather than the five or six per day I have during the week.

My friend Lisa is a teacher, she gets up at 7am and goes to bed about 9.30pm and based on this she eats four to five times a day, every few hours. She goes to the gym after school finishes, at 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 then.

My brother gets up about 8am and goes to bed at 11pm, he likes to eat bigger meals and snacks and it works for him to eat around four times a day. He is active all day so he has four medium sized meals rather than three bigger meals and a snack. That works for him. On days when he exercises in the middle of the day, he will have half of one of his meals an hour or so beforehand and the other half an hour afterwards – so overall he doesn’t eat more on those days and risk gaining weight, which he doesn’t want to do!

See…we are all different, THANK heavens!

So take time to think about your day and what will work for you to get the results you want.….

Love, Claire x

Claire Turnbull, BSc (Hons) Dietetics UK, NZ-registered nutritionist. Managing director of Mission Nutrition, and Healthy Food Guide nutritionist.

First published: May 2014

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