How many times should you eat a day to lose weight?
Having access to half a million days of MyFitnessPal data to validate and bust dietary myths recently has been a lot of fun (in a nerdy data geek sort of way).
Another obvious question to ask is how many times a day should you eat to reduce your chance of overeating to stay lean, manage diabetes or lose body fat.
Most MyFitnessPal users seem to log their foods as meals rather than just entering them in one big lump. And even after we clean up the data, we have nearly four hundred thousand days of data to analyse.
The chart below shows the number of times people said they ate per day versus the percentage of their goal calories that they consumed.
If someone logged less than 100% of their goal intake for the day, it means that they ate less than their goal intake. If they recorded more than 100% of their goal, it indicates that they were not able to keep their intake below their target.
The data analysis suggests that:
- If you ate more than three meals a day, you’re likely to consume more calories than average.
- One meal a day (OMAD) seems to help you eat less than average. However, the optimum daily meal frequency appears to be two meals if you are looking to maintain a sustained calorie deficit.
The table below shows the numbers that sit behind the graph.
|meals per day||average calories||% target||n||difference (calories)|
- The majority of people seem to eat four times per day (e.g. three meals and a snack).
- Eating six times per means you’ll likely to eat around 220 calories per day more on average.
- Limiting yourself to three meals a day and not snacking will help you cut more than 100 calories per day.
- Cutting down to two meals a day will, on average, help you cut around 266 calories per day from your diet.
Why is it so?
Some people recommend keeping the metabolic fire soaked with lots of small meals. However, the data confirms that most people aren’t able to restrain themselves if given the opportunity to eat frequently.
A recent study by Satchin Panda tracked via a smartphone app and found that the 10% of people who ate the least frequently actually ate 3.3 times per day! The top 10% of people ate more than ten times per day. As shown in the ‘feedogram’ below, the only time people didn’t eat was while sleeping. People typically met their calorie needs for weight maintenance by 6:36 pm but kept on eating until they got to sleep at 11 or 12 o’clock.
Perhaps one meal a day doesn’t work so well because you are SOOOO hungry by the time you get to eat that you keep on eating and eating and eating; more than you would if you weren’t as hungry when you started eating. And if you are at home with unlimited access to the fridge and cupboard from dinner time until you go to bed, you can still get a lot of food in!
It’s likely that you would find it difficult to get as much high-satiety protein in one large meal compared two smaller meals. To get all your daily calories in one sitting you’ll probably need to reach for more energy dense, lower nutrient density lower protein foods.
Perhaps three meals a day doesn’t work so well because we have more opportunities to eat than we really need, especially at home in front of the TV with unlimited access to the fridge and cupboard that are often stacked with low protein comfort foods.
Two meals per day is a nice balance that enables us to eat satiating nutrient-dense whole food meals while still providing a significant fasting window during which time the body is able to practice drawing on our fat reserves.
It’s also easier psychologically because you’re not always thinking about food and restrict your intake. You eat well in the allotted time and then get on with your day, knowing that you have had the food you need.
What about insulin resistance?
To be clear, as discussed in detail in this article, I’m not saying that reducing meal frequency works because it reduces insulin which leads to fat loss without regard to energy intake. Limiting your opportunities to eat by compressing your eating window is merely a great hack to manage your energy intake. This, in turn, leads to a reduction in body fat levels, lower insulin levels and reversal of diabetes.
Which two meals?
So by now, you’re probably wondering “If you’re going to eat only two meals per day, which two meals should they be?”
The table below shows a summary of the data for people who logged two meals per day.
|meal combination||goal (cals)||total (cals)||meal 1 (cals)||meal 2 (cals)||% target||n|
|breakfast + lunch||1541||1100||423||677||72%||9041|
|lunch + dinner||1608||1234||561||672||78%||4935|
|dinner + breakfast||1575||1328||521||807||85%||4072|
The chart comparing the three scenarios is shown below. The analysis of the data suggests that:
- The combination of breakfast and lunch is the stand out winner if your goal is to eat less.
- Though not as good as the breakfast + lunch combo, combining our meals closer together at lunch and dinner seems to also be beneficial.
- The worst outcome is for the two meals spread apart at breakfast and dinner.
If you chose to cut down to two meals per day then consuming them as breakfast and lunch may help you cut around 200 calories per day (or 17%) of your intake compared to consuming breakfast and dinner.
The table below shows the scenarios sorted from smallest intake to largest.
|meal frequency||average (cals)||% target||n||delta|
|breakfast + lunch||1,100||72%||9,041||-410|
|lunch + dinner||1,234||78%||4,935||-276|
|one meal a day||1,283||81%||5,553||-227|
|dinner + breakfast||1,328||85%||4,072||-182|
|three meals a day||1,403||87%||93,062||-107|
This chart shows the comparison of meal scenarios in terms of calories per day.
Whether you view it as restricting opportunities for overeating or better alignment with your natural circadian rhythm (or a bit of both), it seems that limiting your feeding window to earlier in the day (eTRF) is potentially a useful way to manage your food intake.