Three square meals a day is the established norm, but not everyone chooses to follow it. Some people trying to lose weight eat five small meals a day or skip breakfast. The truth is, it doesn't matter how often you eat, as long as you eat healthy foods and the right amount of calories.
Eating three calorie-controlled meals made up of nutritious foods will help you lose weight.
Weight Loss Basics
Your diet is one of the most important factors in how successful you are at losing weight. Genetics, age, gender, ethnicity, and medical conditions and medications also affect weight loss success, but the basic idea is that if you eat more calories than your body burns for energy each day, you'll gain weight. If you eat fewer calories than your body needs each day, you'll lose weight.
Therefore, whether you eat three times a day or 12 times a day, what matters most is keeping your calorie intake below your calorie expenditure. Figuring out this number can be challenging, but you can get a general idea using recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans based on age, gender and activity level.
Since exercise is another important component of weight loss, you should aim for a moderately active to active lifestyle. If you're a moderately active man between the ages of 26 and 45, you need around 2,600 calories a day. A moderately active woman in the same age range needs approximately 2,000 calories each day.
These are the calories you need to maintain your weight. To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories.
Splitting Up Your Meals
Track your meals for the next few days to see how many calories you're actually eating. If you're exceeding your daily calorie goal, plan your three meals a day to stay within your calorie budget.
You can divide your calories among your three meals any way you'd like. If your goal is 2,100 calories per day, for example, and you divide it equally, each meal would contain around 700 calories. If you like to eat a small breakfast and a larger dinner, you might allot 400 calories for breakfast, 800 calories for lunch and 900 calories for dinner.
It's helpful to know what those amounts of calories look like. For example, a 400-calorie breakfast could include:
A 900-calorie dinner could include:
Choosing Healthy Foods
As you can see, you can eat quite a lot of food in three meals while staying within your calorie budget. It's easy to do when you cut out junk foods, processed foods, fried and fatty foods, sugar and desserts that are high in calories and low in nutrients. When you choose healthy, whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, lean protein and whole grains, it is less challenging to lower your calorie intake and still feel full.
Including enough protein and fiber-rich foods at each meal may help you stay full for longer so you can stick to your three-meal a day plan without snacking. Both fiber and protein digest slowly and slow stomach emptying.
Because fiber expands when it comes into contact with fluids in the stomach, it promotes stomach distension, according to a review article in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism in January 2019. Stomach distension delays the release of a hormone called ghrelin that stimulates appetite, thus preventing hunger soon after eating. Protein can also reduce ghrelin production.
If you do find that eating only three meals a day doesn't keep hunger pangs a bay, add in a couple healthy snacks. Some carrot sticks and hummus or apple slices and nut butter can tide you over until your next meal, so you don't give in to cravings for less healthy foods. Just be sure to include your snacks in your total calorie intake for the day.
- NIH: "Factors Affecting Weight & Health"
- Dietary Guidelines for Americans: "Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 01129, Egg, Whole, Cooked, Hard-Boiled"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 08200, Cereals, Quaker, Quaker Multigrain Oatmeal, Dry"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 09302, Raspberries, Raw"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 16260, Silk Original Creamer"
- USDA: Basic Report: 15209, Fish, Salmon, Atlantic, Wild, Cooked, Dry Heat
- USDA: "Basic Report: 20037, Rice, Brown, Long-Grain, Cooked (Includes Foods for Usda's Food Distribution Program)"
- USDA: "Full Report (All Nutrients): 45287317, Tzatziki, Upc: 046567507316"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 11458, Spinach, Cooked, Boiled, Drained, Without Salt"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 04053, Oil, Olive, Salad or Cooking"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 12061, Nuts, Almonds"
- USDA: "Basic Report: 09200, Oranges, Raw, All Commercial Varieties"
- Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism: "The Role of Fiber in Energy Balance"
- Nutrition & Metabolism: "A High-Protein Diet for Reducing Body Fat: Mechanisms and Possible Caveats"