Many people still believe that eating smaller, frequent meals is the best option for fat loss. While it certainly is an option, it isn’t superior to other meal schedules. Energy balance and food quality are what matter most. Meal structure has been debated endlessly, so I want to present a few practical arguments for different schedules.
While the exact approach you use might vary, it is crucial to decide on an initial structure. Pick an approach that fits your schedule. It might be the same every day, or it can vary depending on what each day looks like. For example, someone who works three, twelve-hour shifts per week may use a different schedule on work days as opposed to off days.
The details for how to do any of these meal schedules are outside the scope of this article. My point is that you must have an infrastructure before making any changes. If your meal schedules are random, changes won’t stick.
If you already eat three meals a day and are in the habit of planning and shopping for the meals, change will be easy. Simply swap foods and portions until you get the desired result. If your meal schedule is inconsistent and unplanned, change can be difficult. It would be like building a house on a poor foundation.
Here are four approaches to eating to support an active lifestyle and maintain healthy weight.
1. Eat Three Square Meals
Pros: This, to me, is the easiest schedule. You only have to make three decisions each day. If you are currently struggling with small frequent meals, transitioning to three square meals can be liberating. You can actually eat until you are satisfied.
Cons: My general rule for portion size is that you must find the right amounts to keep you sane until about an hour or half hour before your next meal. Three meals a day simplifies this process. Less thinking, less eating time, and more brain power for important daily tasks. However, if the thought of food and snacks around the office are too much of a temptation, this option might prove difficult.
2. Eat 1-2 Meals With 1-2 Snacks
Pros: This structure works great for someone who doesn’t have time for breakfast or lunch. A small snack in the car, like a banana and nuts, can be easy in the morning. From here, have a solid portion at lunch, a snack, and a later dinner. Or you could eat a big breakfast, two snacks midday, and a hearty dinner. Either way works. It depends on your schedule.
Cons: For this approach to work, you have to have a snacking plan. It’s too easy to get hungry and visit the vending machine. This is where most people falter. More frequent eating times can be fine, but only if they are well planned. Consistency is king, especially when it comes to fat loss. It is also essential to appropriately portion the meals so that hunger doesn’t strike at an inconvenient time. This may take some practice.
3. Eat 5-6 Meals a Day
Pros: This is the classic plan that became mainstream with the rise of bodybuilding. While I dislike this structure for most people, it does have value for the right person. If you have the time and enjoy planning, by all means, go for it. It is also great for those of us who can only comfortably eat small amounts at one time. And remember, frequent meals became popular in bodybuilding for a reason. If you lift for a living, it’s hard to get enough calories in only three meals. Depending on your workout schedule, it may be necessary to eat more often.
Cons: I did this for a while, until it became too much of a chore. Plus, what would happen if there wasn’t a microwave around? The forks always go missing, until we find them under the car seat, covered in rotten broccoli.
4. Eat One Meal a Day
Pros: The other extreme is intermittent fasting. There are many ways it can be done, but let’s just use the one-meal-a-day model as a practical example. While I don’t usually recommend this, it can come in handy. For example, if your job doesn’t allow for eating homemade food, and there are no decent food choices around, one meal a day may be an option. Intermittent fasting also works for those of us who eat a lot and don’t get full easily. I’ve seen these folks go absolutely crazy eating smaller, frequent meals. Fasting is a way to get after it come mealtime and still be able to maintain a healthy weight.
Cons: Intermittent fasting isn’t for most people, and it typically is not a sustainable approach to eating. I have used this approach with men, but women, for various reasons, do not seem to thrive on this type of schedule.(1,2) You must know yourself and what is realistic. Perfection isn’t the goal. Find a structure you actually enjoy.
Your Body Is a Self-Tuning Instrument
Having a planned meal schedule can give you feedback to when your body is changing. Let’s say you eat four meals a day consistently with similar portions and food quality. If you take up a new sport or alter your workout, the feedback will be immediate. You have the option of making a meal bigger, adding a meal, or condensing meals but making them larger. Sensitive feedback is the key to avoiding frustration.
Our bodies are resilient. Almost anything will work, but you must be consistent and plan ahead. Be realistic in what you choose. Can you still do this a month, a year, or five years from now? Build an infrastructure that allows you to tweak your diet while saving your willpower.
1. Kumar, Sushil, and Gurcharan Kaur, “Intermittent Fasting Dietary Restriction Regimen Negatively Influences Reproduction in Young Rats: A Study of Hypothalamo-Hypophysial-Gonadal Axis,” PLoS ONE 8(2013).
2. Moragianni, Vasiliki A., Konstantinos N. Aronis, John P. Chamberland, and Christos S. Mantzoros, “Short-Term Energy Deprivation Alters Activin A and Follistatin But Not Inhibin B Levels of Lean Healthy Women in a Leptin-Independent Manner,” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 96(2011): 3750-758.