Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. You need to eat six small meals throughout the day to stoke your metabolism. You should fast in the morning and eat all your meals between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.
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You’ve likely come across all of these recommendations — and more — in your quest to figure out how to eat to lose weight. But how many meals a day do you really need? Three, four, six? The answer depends on you! Every body and every schedule is different, and that means what works for your best friend or co-worker might not work for you.
So what can you do? Here’s how to make sense of when and how often to eat to see your best results.
The Basic Weight-Loss Formula
First things first. In order to lose weight, you must be burning more calories than you’re taking in. Everything else is secondary to your calorie intake (yes, even meal frequency). You simply won’t lose weight if you’re eating a surplus of calories every day.
After calories, macronutrient breakdown — the amount of protein, carbs and fat you eat throughout the day — is also important. Many people strive for a 40-30-30 breakdown, meaning 40 percent of their calories from carbohydrates and 30 percent from both fat and protein. As a general rule, carbs should be planned around strength workouts. Leave fats for meals further from exercise.
Choosing whole, nutrient-dense foods to make up the majority of your caloric intake is another important factor in losing weight. These will help you stay full for longer and provide your body with important vitamins and minerals.
Factor In Meal Frequency
Once you’ve prioritized total calorie intake, macronutrient breakdown and food quality, you can focus on meal frequency. While it’s not crucial to weight loss in the grand scheme of things, having a plan that keeps you satisfied all day long is one that you’re more likely to stick to.
Generally speaking, you’ll lose weight regardless of whether you eat once or eight times per day, as long as you follow the above formula. That being said, here are some guidelines to help determine the best number of meals for you based on your personal preferences and schedule.
- Wake up ravenous
- Have a low tolerance for hunger
- Can’t go to bed without a late-night snack
- Have a job that allows you to eat during the day
- Prefer to graze or snack
- Like knowing that your next meal isn’t too far away
Try eating four to six smaller meals throughout the day. Focus on getting protein at each meal and eating until you’re no longer hungry, but definitely not stuffed.
- Prefer to eat a lot at a time
- Are comfortable with both feeling full and going long periods without food
- Don’t care too much about breakfast
- Can’t eat during the workday
Try skipping breakfast and having one to two really big meals throughout the afternoon and evening. This is also known as intermittent fasting and may require eating slightly past full to ensure you’re reaching your body’s daily energy needs.
If you’re somewhere between the two above and:
- Like to eat enough that you’re satisfied but not stuffed
- Have a job that allows for a lunch break
- Want to go several hours without thinking about food
Try sticking with the more traditional three balanced meals and maybe a snack or two (as needed, not just whenever wanted) during the day.
Time to Experiment
Got your ideal number of meals? Great! Now comes the fun part. Even though you may have answered a resounding yes to one of the above scenarios, figuring out the meal frequency that works for you in real life (not just on paper) will take some experimenting.
If you’re currently seeing your desired results with the number of meals you’re currently eating, there’s probably no need to make any major changes. However, if you’re not seeing results, consider trying a different eating pattern for two to four weeks to see if you feel any differently.
So now that you’re the scientist, it’s important to know what variable you’re testing (meal frequency) and what kind of data you’re collecting. This could be weight loss, energy levels, satisfaction or any number of other progress indicators that are meaningful to you.
Been skipping breakfast for years and feeling lethargic during the day? Try eating breakfast for a month and see if you feel better. Always eaten six small meals, but tired of never quite feeling satisfied by any of them? Try combining two of your regular smaller meals into a bigger one and see if that does the trick.
Use a journal or app like LIVESTRONG's MyPlate to collect this information on a consistent basis, and then use it to make adjustments going forward.
What Do YOU Think?
Are you currently trying to lose weight? How many meals a day do you eat? Do you think you’ll change up your meal frequency after reading this? What other weight-loss tips do you swear by? Share your thoughts, suggestions and questions in the comments below!