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Why Is It Healthy to Eat Three Meals a Day?

author image Carrie Dennett
Carrie Dennett is a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and journalist. She has been a health, wellness and nutrition writer since 2004, and currently writes a nutrition column for "The Seattle Times." She holds a Master of Public Health in nutritional sciences from the University of Washington.
Why Is It Healthy to Eat Three Meals a Day?
A group of children eating breakfast at the kitchen table. Photo Credit altrendo images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Eating three meals a day seems sensible, but is it healthy? When you want to feel and look your best, it's hard to ignore the conflicting claims that grazing all day or skipping meals is the best way to reach your goals. This is one case where it may be healthiest to stick with tradition.

Meal Frequency and Weight

The average American eats 3.12 meals a day, and a three-meals-a-day pattern is the norm in other industrialized nations. There is no clear, consistent evidence that any other meal frequency is better. In 2011 position stand, the International Society of Sports Nutrition reported that spreading calories out over more than three meals doesn’t appear to favorably change body composition. Eating breakfast, lunch and dinner each day may be optimal for controlling appetite and managing food intake.

Aiming for Optimal Calorie Distribution

One advantage of eating three meals a day is that you are spreading your calories across your day, so you don't get too hungry between meals. Another is that you aren't spreading your calories too thin, so you are more likely to feel satisfied after each meal. Grazing all day may cause you to loose track of calories, especially if you choose high-calorie snacks, while having fewer than three meals a day may leave you so hungry that it's hard to make healthy food choices.

Meal Quality Versus Meal Quantity

What you eat probably makes more of a difference than how often you eat. Skipping meals can make it hard to get the variety of foods and nutrients you need for good health. When you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, you are likely to choose different foods at each meal, providing overall variety. Snacking can be a good way to add extra servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy protein to your diet, or it can be an excuse to eat potato chips and candy bars.

Personal Experimentation

Determining whether three meals a day is a healthy pattern for you may take some experimentation. Your goal is to provide your body with steady energy throughout the day and to get hungry enough between meals that you feel ready to eat but are still able to make rational choices at mealtime. If you find that you get too hungry between meals, adding a snack or two while still staying within your ideal calorie range may be a better option for you.

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