How Often Should You Eat?

One of the most common questions I’m asked is “how often should you eat”.  

With most questions like this my response can be rather annoying to hear. Because my answer “it depends”.  

There are those that recommend you should eat small meals more often, consistently “putting kindling on the fire”. Others recommend you have three square meals and try and avoid snacking. And in more recent times there are those that advocate intermittent fasting, in all its different forms. 

Meal Timings

In reality all of these are viable options, it just depends on what works best for you. Regardless of what some research says about “insulin” or “longevity” your body is your best indicator of what’s most appropriate.

When you eat a meal that food is broken down and used for energy. Some of it is used immediately, while other parts of it are stored as glycogen. Glycogen is stored in the liver and the muscles and is the energy that you use between meals and in emergencies.

So if you eat a meal, once that meal is used up, you start to use glycogen as your energy source. If this continues on and you still fail to eat, your glycogen will eventually become depleted.

If this happens, your body still needs energy to continue functioning. It turns on stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that start to liberate protein and fat respectively, to be used for energy. In laymen’s terms you are breaking down muscle, bone, tissue and organs to continue providing energy to your cells. 

This happens to all of us at different points. Ideally it should be avoided but in reality we all get caught out at certain times. But when someone is restricting calories to significantly lower amounts than they need, this is happening at a much higher level and will lead to problems.

So in an ideal world, people want to be eating prior to the point of running out of energy and forcing the body into catabolism (at least most of the time).

HungerThis is where meal timings therefore become individualised based on what works for you, with your digestive capabilities having an impact.  

If you are someone who needs to 2,500 calories in a day, that would work out to roughly 830 calories per meal if you are sticking to a three meals a day approach.

For some people this is fine, they can eat 830 calories for breakfast, get on with their day and then eat again 6 hours later when they have another 830 calorie meal for lunch.  

But for lots of people this just isn’t physically doable. They can’t put away this amount of food in one sitting. Or if they do, it leaves them feeling heavy and horrible and unable to digest it. Instead, they do better having 500 calories for breakfast and then 3 hours later having a snack that’s 330 calories.

(And just so you know, I’m not saying everyone has to count their calories or that all meal sizes need to be the same size when split across the day. I’m simply using the numbers to illustrate the example).

The point is, there isn’t a right way of doing this. You need to listen to your body and see what works for you. This won’t be set in stone and some days will be different to others but typically I find people discover a way that works best for them that they then follow most of the time.

There are a couple of snags that can happen with the idea of “listening to your hunger” that I want to touch on.

The first is that the sensation of hunger isn’t always straight forward. Most people think of hunger as a “growling stomach” but this might not always be the case. Or the growling stomach may only start when someone has left hunger way too long and they should really have eaten before this.

So start to notice hunger sensations outside of just digestion. Energy, fatigue, concentration, mood, temperature of hands, feet or nose, cravings, heachaches and many more. Work out your hunger signals that let you know to eat before that point of being ravenous, where it’s more difficult to make healthful choices.  

Meal TimingsThe second important point is to realise that there are going to be times when you actually don’t notice your hunger regardless of how much attention you try and pay to it.

I work with lots of women (and men) who have very demanding and stressful jobs. From the moment they are in the office (or fire up the laptop at home) they are totally focused. In what feels like minutes, hours have passed by and it can suddenly be 1pm. Only at the point of standing up to get lunch do they realise that they feel lightheaded and have left it way too long.

So with clients like this I suggest they try having a mid morning snack and see what happens. Even if they aren’t hungry, just try it out. (I often have to get them to set a timer on their phone or their calendar so they remember).  

The response is almost unanimous in that they feel better after they have eaten. They didn’t feel hungry and felt fine, but once they eat they realise how much a boost it gives to their energy and focus.

So realising that sometimes because of the environment we don’t get the information from our body and we have to use our head to see if it makes us feel better.

The third and final point relates to those with a dieting history or who are suffering with disordered eating. In these situations hunger has often been fought against and ignored for a long time.

It’s therefore not uncommon that the sensation of hunger has been blunted. People can say that they feel no hunger all day and then will suddenly become ravenous and uncontrollable around food in the evening. Basically unless hunger hits 9 or 10 out of 10, they don’t feel it.  

In these cases, the advice is the same as with the busy women who don’t notice their hunger. I suggest they try eating every 3 or 4 hours and do this even if they are not hungry. How does it make them feel? What happens to their eating in the evening?

Some of the times this can be a smooth process, with hunger coming back and people enjoying this. For others, it can be terrifying.

They notice that when they eat, it feels like the floodgates open and their hunger rises up. This can be a clear indication of how much their body needs food, but that isn’t a comforting realisation for someone who makes the connection between eating and weight gain. It’s something we have to work on and isn’t just repaired by eating more, but it is a necessary part of the process. 

Like everything I recommend, there is no right answer or right way of doing “meal timings”. It just depends on you. Keep this in mind the next time you see an article on the benefits of such and such eating style and you think you should do it to improve your health. Instead, play around and see what is best for you. No preconceived ideas, no biases, just discover what works in reality, for you.



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Chris Sandel is the founder of www.seven-health.com. He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.

Comments

  1. Very well said, Chris.

  2. Its been a while since i am struggling with this habit in my life.
    I tend to be very very hungry in the morning. I mean, no matter what i ate the last dinner (lots of time more than 1000 calories) i will wake up, eat my breakfast at 7am (around 300 calories), walk to my office (taking me 60 minutes) and around 10.30 am i am hungry again. Sometimes, i will eat an apple and around 12 am, i will be hungry again.
    I can not have my lunch until 16 pm (oh yes spain is a master of eating late and scheduling is not good here).
    I love eating a big lunch (700-1000 calories). But by 12pm, i am able to have a big big big big snack in order to kill my hunger. And…i dont know how to schedule my meal times. Because despite eating enough (2200-2500 calories) I feel i would be able to eat my whole fridge every morning…

    I walk a lot during the day (probably more than 10 miles a day and three times a week i lift some weights and do cycling for enjoyment). I dont know if it is time to increase my calories to 3000 calories….

  3. I do not have apetite in the morning ,how to increase?
    I know if I do not eat enough for breakfast then I have hard time to get enough calories.

  4. Hi Maria,

    I typically find if people stop eating breakfast, then their hunger in the morning can disappear. The opposite is also true, that if someone can start to eat breakfast and keeps it up, that appetite will increase. Maybe to start with go with things that you crave in the morning or really appeal to you. Don’t think about “breakfast” food but really any food that appeals to you. But from working with so many clients, the more clients eat breakfast, the better morning hunger becomes.

    See if that helps.

    Chris

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