If you’re like most people, you probably eat three meals a day, interspersed with snacks. That’s generally a good way to go, according to nutrition experts — “generally” being the key word. More important is tuning in to your body’s needs: Someone who sits in front of a computer from dawn to dusk isn’t going to need as much food as a muscled athlete who spends the day doing athletic things.
“Every body is different — hunger and metabolism vary for everyone, and there’s a lot that needs to be taken into account when it comes to figuring out what works best for each person,” says Mandy Enright, RDN, the FOOD + MOVEMENT® Dietitian and author of 30-Minute Weight Loss Cookbook: 100+ Quick and Easy Recipes for Sustainable Weight Loss. “The number of meals we eat in a day depends on a lot of factors including our schedules, activity level, energy status and, most importantly, hunger.”
As a rule, a meal typically includes a mix of produce, proteins and grains or starches, Enright notes. It likely fits on a 10-inch dinner plate. A snack is a mini meal. It likely fits on a 6- to 7-inch side plate.
“There are a lot of clients I’ve encountered over the years who don’t like to eat a lot at a meal and find that eating smaller meals more frequently works better for them,” says Enright, who also has a master’s degree in nutrition education. “Other clients find that eating three main meals plus a snack or two in their day works best for them. There really is no one-size-fits-all approach to eating.”
If you’re wondering where the uniform default of three-squares-a-day comes from (I sure was), credit (or blame) European settlers who brought the habit to the New World.
“The eating style of the English settlers was contrary to Native Americans at the time who ate when they were hungry,” Enright says. “Europeans believed they were being more civilized by having boundaries around their meals compared to the natives they encountered.”
Welp, as far as I can tell, forcing ourselves to fit a mold of any kind has never proved well.
That said, Enright suggests paying mind to 3 guidelines, which are in step with suggestions from the nutrition arms of several well-respected medical schools:
“I often encourage folks to aim to eat every three to four hours in their day, as a starting point. From there, they can assess their hunger levels,” Enright says. “If they’re finding they are starving by the time they get to their next meal, then they may need to eat every two to three hours. And if someone is not hungry by the time they’re ‘supposed’ to have their next meal, then maybe four to five hours between meals works better.”
The Center for Healthy Eating and Activity Research at the UC San Diego School of Medicine suggests eating every three to four hours in order to maintain healthy blood sugar levels and help your stomach digest food the best it can.
Know that it’s okay for your eating frequency to vary from one day to the next. But a schedule, even a loose one, is usually helpful. Eating meals at regular intervals throughout the day helps us keep hunger pains at bay and feel more even keeled, according to Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“I do encourage people to find a … framework they can work around to stay properly fueled in their days,” Enright says.
“Quality is all about the type of foods we’re putting on the plate: more wholesome options and less processed foods,” Enright says. “Aim for high-fiber foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, along with a lean source of protein and healthy fats.”
“Quantity is how much of these foods are showing up at meals,” Enright says. “Aim for fruits and veggies to be the star of the show, and the protein and carbs to be the supporting cast members.”
In practice, fruits and veggies should together amount to one to two of your palms, filling roughly half a dinner plate, she says. Protein and carbs should each be about one palm, and each should fill about one quarter of your plate.
UC San Diego’s research center highlights the times of day and night the body is typically primed to consume certain types of food.
Keep in mind that even if you’re trying to shed pounds you should eat, and eat regularly.
“The worst thing we can do for weight loss is to not eat,” Enright says. “This can put the body in starvation mode and actually lead to an increase in fat storage and slow down our metabolism — pretty much the opposite of the goal of losing weight.”
Journalist Mitra Malek writes about wellness. She tends toward three meals a day, but rarely can go more than three hours between meals, which means she also snacks.