Ask Mickey: Meal Times and Frequency

Is it better to eat several small meals throughout the day or just breakfast, lunch, and dinner? And what about the timing of meals: does eating right before bedtime lead to weight gain or make it harder to lose weight? 

Eat three square meals or six small meals per day. Snack. Don’t snack. Close your kitchen after 8 p.m. Eat breakfast daily. You’ve heard all of these rules (and more) before. When it comes to weight loss, there are a lot of opinions floating around — on TV, at the gym, in magazines, at your family gatherings — and it’s hard to know what advice is sound. Unfortunately, most of these “rules” aren’t supported by strong research. In fact, a recent study showed that it doesn’t matter if you eat six small meals or three larger ones; if you eat fewer calories than you expend, you will lose weight.

With that said, some people feel better eating smaller, more frequent meals, and others have more success with three larger meals. The keys are to never let yourself get too hungry, and to be sure you’re choosing healthful, balanced meal components no matter what size meal you prefer. Most people need to eat every four hours; wait much longer than that, and you feel starved, which is when people tend to make less healthy choices.

Restricting eating after a certain time can be helpful if you tend to snack mindlessly after dinner. It can also encourage an earlier dinner, which may reduce late-afternoon snacking and result in fewer calories eaten over the course of the day. However, there is minimal research to support restricting eating after a certain time of day or within a specific number of hours before bedtime for weight loss. Suggestions like this can backfire, too, because we tend to crave what is off-limits — that ice cream in the freezer is much more appealing when it’s forbidden than when you allow yourself to enjoy it as an occasional after-dinner treat.

While many diet “rules” don’t work, if you’re trying to lose weight, keep the following in mind:

  1. Eat breakfast. Studies repeatedly show that people who eat breakfast eat fewer calories per day and weigh less. Skipping breakfast can lead to larger, less-healthy meals later in the day.
  2. Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues. Many of us have lost touch with the feeling of hunger and thus eat out of habit; when stressed or bored; or as a celebration. If you’re hungry and it is in between your planned meal times, eat a healthy snack (see below)! This will keep you from overeating less healthy food at your next meal. Knowing when you’re full is just as important. Eat slowly to give your stomach and mind time to register the meal, rather than devouring a big plate of food that may have looked appealing when you were hungry. There’s no need to be a member of the clean plate club! Save it for tomorrow.
  3. Drink water. Thirst or dehydration can feel like hunger. Drink water, plain seltzer, or unsweetened tea to stay hydrated throughout the day.
  4. Have healthy snacks on hand for hunger emergencies. Keep nuts, portable fruit like apples, or healthy energy bars that offer a few grams of protein and fiber at your desk; in your car; or in your purse or backpack so you’re always prepared!
  5. Eat a mix of lean protein, fiber-rich complex carbohydrates, and healthy fat at each meal. This trifecta of nutrients will keep you full and feeling great until your next meal!

12-3790_bamco_askmickey_web-157x300There is no one diet or meal pattern that works for everyone — listen to your body and fuel it with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and lean protein in moderate amounts to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. And, don’t forget to enjoy an occasional treat!

About Ask Mickey: At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. Making good food choices helps you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. In the Ask Mickey column, Bon Appétit Management Company registered dietitian nutritionists offer tips on “chewing the right thing” and answer your nutrition questions. (Mickey, aka Michelina, is a particular feisty Italian grandmother who continues to inspire us.) Email your questions and feedback to nutrition@cafebonappetit.com.