How Often Should You Eat? [A Practical Guide On How to Decide]

The debate regarding meal frequency continues to be as popular as ever.

One camp argues that you should eat 2 or 3 times a day, while the other states that you have to eat 6 small meals a day.

With such conflicting view points, it’s difficult to know how often you should eat to accomplish your fitness goals.

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of the WCT series on weight loss. These posts go over simple, yet valuable strategies that you can include into your busy schedule to help kickstart your fat burning machinery.

Today’s post is going to cover

  • The most common misconceptions about weight loss diets
  • Why eating more can help you shed bodyweight
  • The optimal number of times you should eat to accomplish your fitness goals

Alright, let’s get started.

How Often Should You Eat?

So, what is the optimal amount of times you should eat per day?

It depends.

You need to be able to consume enough micro-and macronutrients to keep your body functioning at an optimal level.

If you can get enough veggies, healthy fats, healthy proteins, and all of the essential vitamins and minerals in 3 meals per day, then eat 3 meals per day.

If not, then you need to eat more often.

Let me explain why.

How Often Do You Currently Eat?

If you are like most people, you probably eat 2 or 3 times a day. If your goal is to lose weight, then this kind of seems intuitive.

According to conventional wisdom: If you want to lose weight, you should eat less.

But is this approach optimal?

Make an honest assessment of what those 2-3 meals are. Is one of your meals is a cup of coffee with a piece of toast?

Is your lunch just a small salad?

What about dinner? Do you purposefully skip dinner (or not eat after 5 pm) because you have been told that this leads to weight gain?

If this sounds like you, then I have some news for you. These are some of the worst things that you could do for your health.

Why ‘Eating Less’ Doesn’t Always Work

First, let me say that in order to lose weight, you must be in a caloric deficit. This means that you must consume slightly less calories than your body consumes on a daily basis.

It is important to note that I said slightly. (This means approximately 200-500 calories per day, max).

People often eat 2 meals a day or skip dinner in an effort to eat less food and decrease their caloric intake. As a result, people consume way too little calories.

Dropping your caloric intake by this much is wrong for one major reason.

Your body is an amazing machine. It will do whatever it takes to maintain homeostasis.

  • If you’re cold, your body responds by shivering.
  • If you’re hot, your body will sweat.
  • If you’re starving yourself (aka excessive caloric restriction), your body will become more efficient.

In other words, your metabolism slows down and consumes less energy to maintain your level of wakefulness and your body-weight.  This will destroy any chances of weight loss success in your future.

But Isn’t Calories In Vs Calories Out All There is To It?

You cannot escape calories in = calories out.

It is the first law of thermodynamics.

However, this equation tends to oversimplify everything, and if you are like most people, you will take it to an extreme and drop your calorie intake by a large amount.

Have you ever wondered why people who restrict calories excessively will initially lose weight, but then stagnate and eventually start gaining it back?

Your body accepts the current caloric restricted state as its new baseline and will strive to prevent further changes.

In order to make more progress and lose more weight, you will have to consume even fewer calories to force further adaptations from your body.

But then, the same pattern will repeat. It’s a vicious cycle.

You can only decrease your calorie intake by so much.

OK, But Won’t This Method Burn Fat? 

The fat stored in your body is full of energy that is readily available for use during times of famine.

However, it doesn’t cost your body much to store it.

It’s like a savings account. You generally don’t dip into your savings account until you’ve depleted your cash reserves.

Muscles are also full of energy, but unlike fat, they are expensive. They require more energy just to be maintained.

It’s like owning a luxury boat that requires monthly payments to upkeep. If you start to run low on cash (aka calories), it is wise to sell the boat to get rid of your most expensive liabilities.

This is what your body does.

It will begin to trade muscle for energy; which is a horrible trade. Muscles are your body’s secret weapon to health and fat loss.

Wait, it gets worse…

Once you reintroduce calories (which is inevitable if you’re starving yourself), your body will quickly learn how to adapt to the new intake and begin storing the energy as fat.

Think about it.

You are now presenting your body with extra calories in a starved, nutrient deprived, slower metabolic state.

Have you wondered why so many people on The Biggest Loser have gained most of the weight back (and more) once they finish the program?

You cannot expect your body to respond appropriately to extreme measures of unsustainable weight loss and then continue to produce results.

So in a nutshell..

  • A calorie deficit is necessary to lose weight, but it must be a small sustainable amount
  • Eating infrequently throughout the day increases your chance of eating too few calories each day
  • Excessive calorie restriction is unsustainable and can damage your metabolism in the long run
  • Prolonged calorie restriction will burn fat, but it can also burn muscle as well


Common Weight Loss Misconceptions

Now that we have that misconception out of the way. Let’s cover a few more.

Here is a list of the most common weight loss misconceptions out there.

Weight loss supplements work

If you think that a supplement is the key to help you lose weight, then I’m sorry. Please do not spend your hard earned money on weight loss supplements.

Consuming low-fat food is necessary

Fat does not make you fat. Excessive calorie intake coupled with a sedentary lifestyle (and poor genetics) is what makes you fat. Don’t blame one of the key macronutrients that is essential for your survival.

You must spend hours on a treadmill

Running on a treadmill is one of the worst investments you can make towards losing weight. The time that it takes to burn any significant amount of calories is too great. You are better off strength training with the limited amount if time you have for fitness.

The Optimal Number Of Times You Should Eat

So, to get back to the question to this post’s title, How often should you eat?

In my experience, most people do not consume any where near the recommended amount of nutrients in just 2-3 meals per day. This is particularly true if the majority of your meals are composed of low quality junk.

This is why I advocate that busy professionals should consume more meals. 

Yes, more!

I did not necessarily say to consume more calories (although this often can happen, as a lot of people eat so little calories).

I recommend that you eat approximately 4-6 well-balanced meals a day.

That is not all. These meals should contain as much REAL, high-quality food possible. If you prefer to eat just 3 meals a day, try and consume 1-2 nutrient dense snacks throughout the day such as mixed nuts, avocados, homemade protein bars, etc etc.

By consuming nutrient-dense foods at each sitting, you will be fuller longer, and the total calories you consume will not exceed what your body truly requires.

I also recommend that busy professionals consume more meals to prevent the effects of hunger. Many individuals who experience hunger for prolonged periods of time are more likely to binge or consume foods that are high in processed carbohydrates and sugar.

How Often Should I Eat To Lose Weight?

The answer is still the same. If you can get all of the nutrients your body needs in 3 well balanced meals, then eat 3 meals.

If not, then eat more meals throughout the day. If your goal is to lose weight, then keep the meal number the same, but decrease the portion sizes of each meal on a weekly basis.

One quick and easy way to measure your nutrient intake is to use the MyFitnessPal app and plug in your weight loss goals. It will give you a quick calculation regarding the amount of macro and micronutrients you should consume.

Plug in what you normally eat on a daily basis and see how your nutrition stacks up.

The beauty is that real food naturally curbs your appetite, and therefore you are unlikely to overeat.

Find something that is sustainable for you and your lifestyle.

How Often Should I Eat To Gain Muscle?

Can you guess what the answer is?

You can eat 3, 4, 5, or 6 meals per day.  Just make sure that the meals are well balanced and contain mostly high quality, nutrient dense foods.

Well-Balanced meals consist of lean proteins, healthy fats, and fewer more complex carbohydrates.  Check out How To Start Eating Clean [Even With An 80 Hour Workweek] to learn more.

But you can’t gain muscle from diet alone.

In order to gain muscle, you need to couple frequent meals with a regular training schedule. We have just the perfect workout which you can find at The Best Workout Template For Busy Professionals. This workout template teaches you how to include the best exercises in the right frequency to maximize your muscle building potential.

Increasing your muscle mass also has many other benefits!

The more muscle mass your body has (and I do not mean bulky muscles like the ones you see in bodybuilding magazines), the more energy your body needs to feed those muscles in a resting state.

Do not be shocked if your total caloric intake actually increases as you shed inches and lose body fat.

Also, it is possible to stay at the same body weight, yet your body composition changes so much that you need a new wardrobe altogether!

Final Words on Meal Frequency

Do not fall into the trap of starving yourself to lose weight.  There is no easy way out.  If you are like many busy individuals, you may have to start eating more food so that you can give your body the nutrients that it needs to run smoothly. 

With that said, we know that it is not easy to get enough nutrients in during the day, especially with a busy and unpredictable schedule.

Be sure to check out our next post, where we go over the strategies that we use to eat 4-6x a day and maintain a healthy body weight, which you can find at How To Eat 6 Meals A Day, Even With a Busy Schedule.

Now we turn it over to you.

How many times a day do you eat?

Do you notice large fluctuations in your energy levels throughout the day?

Are you constantly hungry? 

Comment below and let us know!


Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM Certified Personal Trainers, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a resource dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals using time-efficient strategies. Their advice has been featured in My Fitness Pal, Prevention, Livestrong, Reader’s Digest, Bustle, The Active Times, and more. Learn more about them here.

2 thoughts on “How Often Should You Eat? [A Practical Guide On How to Decide]”

  1. I have read numerous articles by Doctors who endorse the benefits of intermittent fasting. The most common being eating 2 nutritious meals say late morning or at lunch and dinner around 5 or 6 and thus fasting for the next 15+ hours and starting this same cycle. Are you familiar with this? Your thoughts would be welcomed. Thx!

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