The advice is given so often that’s it’s become gospel: If you want to control your appetite, eat small, frequent meals. The idea is that if you allow too many hours to elapse between breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner, you will become so ravenously hungry that you will be at best uncomfortable and at worst rendered unable to make food choices that are in your best interest.
(It’s true that going too long without eating can lead to the type of “primal” hunger that can leave you feeling out of control and unable to really savor what you’re eating. It may also lead you to make food choices that leave you feeling overly full or otherwise physically not-great afterward. But as I’ll get to, appetite, along with hunger, is natural and normal, and something to be respected, not controlled. But I digress.)
We make numerous eating choices over the course of a day: What to eat, why to eat, where to eat, how to eat and finally when to eat. If eating healthfully is important to you, you might be searching for that missing detail that will help you be even healthier. Optimal meal frequency is one Holy Grail. But do you really need to eat five-to-eight times per day? Research suggests not.
Let’s look at the science
Let’s face it: weight control is a primary reason that people think they need to eat small, frequent meals. I’ve had so many clients tell me that back in their dieting days, they learned that to “stay ahead of hunger,” they need to eat frequently. (More on why this is a bad idea near the bottom of the post.) However, while observational studies have noticed that increased meal frequency is associated with lower likelihood of being “overweight,” association doesn’t prove cause-and-effect. In fact, randomized, controlled-feeding studies — some of which specifically measured appetite — tell a different story. In a few studies, smaller, more frequent meals helped curb appetite. But mostly, the opposite was true.
The “Meals and Grazing” study at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle assigned healthy men and women to eat either three meals a day or eight meals a day for three weeks, then switch. Foods, calories and macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) were the same on both diets. In an optional appetite testing session, 12 participants ate breakfast either as one large meal or as two smaller meals spaced about 90 minutes apart. Those who ate the two smaller meals experienced stronger hunger and desire to eat over a four-hour period than those who ate one larger meal.
Appetite vs. cravings
We typically describe appetite as the desire or urge to eat, which includes our perceived level of hunger. Managing appetite depends on more than just meal spacing. Meal size and composition are critical factors. In other words, what you eat probably makes more of a difference than how often you eat. If you are making healthful and satisfying food choices, eating to meet your body’s energy needs, and your hunger rarely flares out of control, then worrying about how often you eat is splitting hairs.
Cravings are related to appetite, in that they involve a desire to eat, but cravings can happen even when you’re not hungry. Because cravings can feel more powerful when you are also hungry, one supposed benefit of managing hunger and appetite is reduction in cravings.
What’s your frequency?
Overall, research studies have found that increasing meal frequency beyond three meals per day has little-to-no effect on appetite, while eating fewer than three meals per day tends to increase appetite. What does this mean for you? Rather than looking outside for answers to how often you should eat, look inwards.
Your ideal meal frequency will give you steady energy throughout the day. It will also let you get hungry enough between meals that you feel ready to eat a nourishing meal but not so hungry that you lunge for whatever food you can get your hands on. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I feel satisfied at the end of a meal?
- How soon do I get hungry again after a meal?
- How strong is my hunger between meals?
- Do I even feel actual physical hunger?
What your hunger may be telling you
If you feel starving between meals, that’s a sign that you need to eat more at your meals (possibly just more protein), or that you need to eat more often. If you feel the need to eat oddly soon after a meal, but don’t really feel hungry, it may be that you aren’t eating the combination of foods that best suits your body, so try experimenting. If you tend to be distracted while you eat, practice eating mindfully so you get the mental satisfaction of fully tasting your food. Appetite is in the mind as well as the body.
If you realize that you rarely experience true hunger, or feel overfull after you eat, you may need to eat less at meals, or eat less often. Small, frequent meals — especially if they morph into a grazing eating pattern — can cause you to miss out on the hunger and fullness cues that can serve as an internal barometer of how much and when to eat. This is why eating to “stay ahead of hunger” isn’t a great idea. Plus, when you’re eating all the time, it’s easy to eat mindlessly and have no idea what or how much you are really eating in the course of the day.
Finally, if you never allow yourself to get hungry, you may forget what hunger feels like. Hunger is a normal physiological signal that tells us it’s time to refuel, and moderate hunger is nothing to fear. In fact, it enhances our enjoyment of the meal to come!
Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health.
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