You may hear conflicting advice about how often you should eat. Should you stick with three meals a day or toss in a few small snacks? While I always encourage my clients to skip the Skittles and eat real food, the time of day and frequency of meals will vary depending on their health goals.
Timing may be just as important as what and how much you eat. It’s important to honor hunger cues, but eating too late at night could impair sleep, exacerbate gastroesophageal reflux, cause weight gain, or raise blood sugar. A client of mine reduced her GERD medication just by cutting out her evening popcorn that she ate regularly three hours before bedtime.
It’s also important to eat enough and at the right times to shape your body. My client Leslie was trying desperately to lose body fat and gain muscle but was ignoring her body’s hunger signals. Once we tweaked her diet to include enough calories and protein to support her exercise, her workouts improved and she was able to gain muscle and reduce her body fat.
If you’re looking for answers on how to lose or maintain weight, lose body fat and build muscle, or fuel up for a race or other competition, I’ll dish out the latest science on how many meals and snacks you should eat each day and when to eat them.
Meal Timing for Weight Loss
When it comes to weight loss, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Some people eat breakfast, and others skip it. Intermittent fasting helps some lose weight, but others find success on calorie-restricted diets that don’t have prescribed eating windows.
Intermittent fasting is one way to lose weight, especially if you have diabetes or pre-diabetes. My client Mark was told his Hba1c (your average blood sugar levels for three months) was elevated and he needed to lose weight to lower it. His friends and family said that skipping breakfast was part of his problem. When we met, he told me, “I’m not hungry for breakfast and don’t want to eat it.”
As a dietitian, I don’t force anyone to eat foods they don’t like, can’t afford, or that don’t make sense for their lifestyle. Because Mark already skipped breakfast, he was the perfect candidate for intermittent fasting.
A large review of studies found that individuals with overweight and obesity could improve body mass index, body weight, fat mass, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, total cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting glucose, fasting insulin, and blood pressure through intermittent fasting (IF).
Time-restricted eating was a great solution for Mark. Since he already skipped breakfast, we set up a “feeding window” from 12pm to 8pm. He gave up his evening snacks and finished most meals by 8pm. Mark lost 12 pounds in two months and his blood sugar and blood pressure went down.
While IF may work for some, skipping breakfast is not advised for everyone. If you’ve got elevated LDL cholesterol (aka “lousy” cholesterol), skipping breakfast may raise it. A group of studies found that breakfast skippers did lose more weight but also ended up with higher LDL levels. More research is needed to evaluate the long-term effects.
Eating meals earlier in the day may also aid with weight loss. A small study discovered that delayed meals (eating later in the day between 12pm and 11pm) was associated with weight gain, high cholesterol, LDL, triglycerides, and body fat compared to meals consumed early in the day (from 8am to 7pm).
This has also been seen in another study. Shorter intervals between meals resulted in better weight loss than calorie restriction alone. Meals that are eaten at more consistent times (particularly breakfast and dinner) also led to better weight loss.
No matter when meals are eaten, researchers agree that a calorie deficit is needed to induce weight loss and there are multiple methods to achieve this goal.
Meals or snacks for weight loss:
Three meals daily at consistent times for most
Two main meals if using intermittent fasting (such as lunch and dinner)
When to eat for weight loss:
Make breakfast the largest meal (if not using IF)
Stop eating after dinner and eat an earlier dinner
Use a time-restricted feeding window if intermittent fasting
Meal Timing for Weight Maintenance
You’ve gotten to your goal weight. Congratulations! Now, when should you eat to maintain the loss? According to the National Weight Control Registry, successful losers (those that maintained their weight loss), were more likely to eat breakfast than skip it. And breakfast tended to be a larger meal than lunch or dinner.
Successful maintainers also use overnight fasting as a means to keep weight off. Eating too late at night disrupts circadian rhythm and can raise cortisol levels, resulting in decreased glucose tolerance and lower energy expenditure. Too much cortisol can also increase cravings for crappy junk food.
The majority of my clients stick with three consistent meals per day, spaced about five hours apart, and don’t eat after dinner. Those who are more active may eat a small snack a few hours before they work out.
Meals and snacks for weight maintenance:
Three meals per day for most
Small 150- to 200-calorie snacks between meals if hungry
When to eat for weight maintenance:
Breakfast for most: biggest meal of the day
Meals spaced every 4 to 6 hours
Overnight fasting: stop eating after dinner
To Snack or Not to Snack?
Have your friends, family, or trainer said you need to snack throughout the day to keep your metabolism going? While this sounds good in theory, the pandemic taught us otherwise. A survey of over 727 adults showed that frequent snacking during the peak lockdown period (March 2020 to May 2020 in many American cities), led to weight gains of 1 to 4 pounds in most, and over 5 pounds in some. Forty percent of responders had gained weight and noted a higher intake of ultra-processed food and take out.
Other factors contributing to COVID weight gain included reduced exercise, poor sleep, increased alcohol intake, stress eating, and snacking after dinner. Of course, the type of snack matters.
Nutrient-dense snacks like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds add more vitamins, minerals, and fiber to your diet and may not necessarily lead to weight gain. One study in overweight subjects found that daily consumption of a 200-calorie nut-based snack bar compared to a traditional 200-calorie snack, reduced body fat. Negative effects on weight, blood pressure, lipid profile, satiety, or quality of life were not noted.
If you think you need a snack, pay attention to hunger cues. For most people, food moves through their gastrointestinal system within three to four hours. If you’re eating every two hours, it could be due to boredom, stress, or habit and the extra calories will add up. I advise clients to space meals or snacks out every four to six hours.
One small study in adults found that snacking in the morning resulted in higher fruit and vegetable consumption while evening snacks were more likely to be processed food such as French fries, soft drinks, or chips. Evening snacks were also associated with distractions such as watching TV or reading.
Keep them small: 100–250 calories at most
Keep them nutritious: fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy products, lean protein
Include snacks earlier in the day when you’re more active
Fuel for Fitness
Some of my clients complain of being nauseous if they don’t eat before working out, while others feel better if they work out on an empty stomach. To be honest, both could work. It depends on how long your workout is.
If your workout is a short (30 minutes or less), low-intensity workout (walking or using an exercise bike), you can get away with not eating anything. If you feel sick when you don’t eat, choose something easy to digest (like fruit or crackers) to give your body a small boost of carbs for energy, and eat it 15–30 minutes before exercise.
A small study in healthy men suggests that “running on empty” may be better than eating before exercise. In a fasted state, training-induced muscle changes and metabolism may combat the negative effects of short-term calorie intake on glucose tolerance.
To build muscle, the amount of protein you consume may be more important than the timing. A recent meta-analysis of studies concluded that the timing of protein intake did not impact muscle strength or synthesis.
It’s important to include protein throughout the day in meals and snacks to help repair muscle tissue after your workout. One study suggests that adults under 65 years of age consume 1.6 grams of protein/kg of body weight, and those over 65 should aim for 1.2 to 1.59 grams/kg to support muscle growth.
One small study does support the use of oral supplements containing both protein and carbohydrates before and after exercise for gains in lean body mass. Keep in mind: these supplements will add calories to your diet.
Meals or snacks for building muscle:
Three meals per day: include 15 to 20 grams of protein per meal
Snacks: include 10 to 15 grams of protein
Include 3:1 carbs to protein: 3 grams of carbs for every 1 gram of protein to replace glycogen
When to eat for building muscle:
Space protein intake out throughout the day, 4 to 6 hours apart
Include protein and carbs in your post-workout snack or meal within an hour of exercise
Pros and Cons of Fasted Workouts on Muscle-building
More fat used for energy, leading to fat loss
Gastrointestinal distress is minimized
Better blood sugar levels
Reduced energy to work out
Less muscle mass gained
Training for Competition
Athletes or anyone training for an event have different feeding times and higher calorie and protein needs than the average Joe. My clients who train for the Cincinnati Flying Pig Marathon are focused on the best way to fuel for competition.
The majority of them “carbo load” by consuming a high-carbohydrate diet throughout their training and up until the race. Most say they are less likely to hit a wall and experience less fatigue when racing.
Consuming carbohydrates during intense events is advised to prevent exercise-induced muscle damage in elite athletes. When compared to controls and athletes who received 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, elites who consumed 120 grams of carbohydrates per hour showed lowered markers of muscle damage and improved performance. This is a perfect use of sports drinks that are accessible and easy to digest.
There is a theory that limiting carbohydrates could enhance muscle performance in athletes. The thought is that restricting carbs will keep muscle glycogen low and stimulate muscle growth and changes in metabolism. A meta-analysis proves otherwise. Restricting carbohydrates three days per week during training does not improve performance in individuals training for competition.
What about intermittent fasting while training? Studies have been done on athletes during Ramadan when fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset. Time-restricted eating appears to enhance oxygen uptake during exercise while intermittent fasting may impair aerobic capacity. Changes in muscle strength were not noted. More research is needed in this area.
Time-restricted eating (TRE) has also been studied to observe the impact on body composition and high-speed strength in healthy, trained subjects. Peak force and strength of the upper body was improved using TRE while non-TRE was associated with better lower body jump performance. Decreases in fat mass were seen in both TRE or non-TRE, and both maintained lean body mass.
A small 8-week study in male runners found that TRE of 16:8 (16 hours fasting, 8-hour eating window) did not impact running performance or endurance but did lower body fat.
In female athletes, eating after training improved nitrogen balance (muscle mass) and reduced time to exhaustion following a bout of exercise. More research is needed on the subject.
Meals or snacks for training or competition:
Eat at least 3 meals per day
Include 3:1 carbohydrate to protein (3 grams carbs to 1 gram protein)
When to eat for training or competition:
3 to 4 hours before a big event (marathon, triathlon)
30 to 60 minutes after your event to replace glycogen
Pros and Cons of Fasted Training on Competition
Less gastrointestinal distress
More fat used for energy, decreased fat mass
Decreased blood sugar
Decreased aerobic capacity
The best times for you to eat will vary based on your activity, hunger, and lifestyle. My advice is to follow hunger cues, include adequate protein and carbohydrates at meal times, and consume the majority of your calories earlier in the day.
There are no hard and fast rules here. What works for one person may not work for you. Experiment with different methods (not on race day) and adopt habits that are sustainable for you.
Don’t starve yourself at breakfast or lunch only to overeat or snack too much in the evening. This is a recipe for weight gain and could hinder athletic performance. Trust me, I’ve had lots of clients learn this the hard way.
Stock your kitchen with nutritious food, including fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean proteins, beans, nuts, and seeds. Drink plenty of water for hydration and pay attention to hunger versus habit when you feel like grabbing snacks. If you’re a stress eater, ask yourself: What’s eating me that’s making me eat?