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Categories: General Health

The Wisdom of Eating 3 Meals Per Day

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

If you read my free Get Lean Guide, you know at BuiltLean, we recommend eating 3 meals and 1-2 snacks per day to help you lose fat. While there is no metabolic advantage to eating more frequently, there are some common sense reasons why eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in addition to 1-2 snacks can help you successfully lose fat.

But before mentioning some of these benefits, let’s consider how Sumo wrestlers eat to pack on so much weight. The average Japanese man is only around 145 pounds, yet amazingly, sumo wrestlers can reach 500+ pounds! So how do they eat to get so huge? Is it possible that you have similar eating habits as a sumo wrestler?

It turns out sumo wrestlers skip breakfast, then eat 1, or 2 enormous meals at 11am, then 6pm. If they eat two meals, they usually take a 4 hour nap right after the 11am meal. I’m taking a wild guess that you probably don’t want to look like a sumo wrestler (even though sumo wrestlers are venerated for their impressive stature in Japan).

What’s important about this example is in the behavior of these overweight men. There are many epidemiological studies that show people who skip breakfast have a higher probability of being overweight, but there is no causal evidence that skipping breakfast causes weight gain.12

Now let’s think about this for a second. Why do so many studies show correlation, but not causation regarding eating 3 meals per day? A common sense explanation is that not skipping breakfast creates more structure in your day. Consistent eating times are associated with improved ability to control hunger (See: How to Control Hunger: 7 Tips). I’ve had several clients who were experiencing weight loss plateaus who were constantly skipping breakfast. When they started eating breakfast, their weight loss plateau suddenly ended.

There are some other important benefits to eating more frequently, which may include (1) better utilization of nutrients and (2) improved energy levels because blood sugar levels are more stable. If you eat a massive lunch, you know exactly how you feel afterwards; very sluggish.

So how many meals and snacks should you eat each day? Because it takes about 2.5-3 hours for your digestive system to digest food, the bodybuilding methodology is you take the amount of hours you are awake and divide by 3. So if you get 6-8 hours of sleep each night, then ideally you can eat 5-6 meals per day. For most of us, I know that’s asking a lot, so 3 meals and 1-2 snacks per day is very achievable for most people. If you are one of those people who hates breakfast, or doesn’t have consistent eating times, after you reach your ideal weight, you can consider intermittent fasting.

For most working professionals with a hectic schedule, 3 meals and 1 snack may work better than just three meals:

  • Breakfast
  • Lunch
  • Mid-afternoon snack
  • Dinner

One more point to mention is to consider eating only when you are hungry, which for me happens to be every 3-4 hours. Obviously, I realize eating 6 meals/snacks per day is more extreme, but if you are eating like a sumo wrestler, increasing the frequency of your meals can make a massive difference not only in your body fat levels, but also your energy levels.

Show 2 References

  1. Van der heijden AA, Hu FB, Rimm EB, Van dam RM. A prospective study of breakfast consumption and weight gain among U.S. men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2007;15(10):2463-9.
  2. Rampersaud GC, Pereira MA, Girard BL, Adams J, Metzl JD. Breakfast habits, nutritional status, body weight, and academic performance in children and adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005;105(5):743-60.

23Comments

  • santi says:

    Thanks Marc, i will test that, till now i was avoidind to eat at night, with very bad results..

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  • Michael says:

    I have to disagree with one of your conclusions: Sumo wrestlers eat very little fat and a lot of rice. That's why they're so fat. Overeating high glycemic carbohydrates is easy but overeating fat is a lot harder. They just wouldn't be able to eat 5,6,7K calories per day on a low-carb diet. I've tried overeating fat one day (by gulping coconut milk cans) and my satiety was so high that I didn't feel any hunger for the next 36-40 hours.

    And when I eat a lot of rice I need to take a nap, it's not my decision I just get sleepy all of a sudden. Sumo wrestlers too probably don't need to force themselves into a nap after eating a lot of rice.

    I don't have a strong opinion on eating frequency, which frequency is optimal I don't know, but it's the low-fat high-carb high-calorie diet that makes the Sumo fat, not eating one big meal per day.

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Michael - I need to update this article as I wrote it when I first started the website. The Sumo wrestlers get fat because they are eating more calories than they burn. Simple as that. I actually find higher fat foods do not satisfy my hunger at all. For example, I can eat a high fat burger that's 1000 calories and be starving within 2 hours, or I could eat 8 ounces of chicken, 1/2 cup of steamed rice, and a cup of veggies, for around 500 calories and be full for 4-5 hours. It's interesting how so many people say fat creates a high level of satiety because it generally takes 6-8 hours to digest, but I find the lean meat + starchy + fibrous carb to be far more satisfying for my hunger. Hunger is a complicated subject that varies from person to person, but that's my take.

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  • Sanford says:

    I've just recently come off a high protien, low carb diet after one month due to insomnia.
    One week after going back to my old habits I was sleeping like a baby again. I did loose 10 pounds fast, but the lack of sleep killed my workouts, and mental state! I'm now eating a healthy balance, without the high glycemic carbs like white bread, rice and pasta. With regular oat meal, whole wheat sandwiches and 50-70g or protien a day. The weight is still coming off, but at a lower rate. But I feel much healthier.
    I've had friends do very well over long periods of time without sleep distuption on a high fat-high protien diet. These same friends also say they feel much better without gluten in thier diets.
    I have a theory that ectomorphs- naturally thin people, do much better with a high carb moderate protien diet. And that people with lots of fat AND muscle(endomorphs)- like my firends- Do better on a higher fat high protien diet.
    May explain why powerlifters preach high protien so much, cause its worked for them.
    And distance runners swear by high carbs, saying they couldn't do it any other way.

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Sanford - I think you are absolutely right. Some people handle carbs much better than others. If I have less than 100 grams of carbs, I feel terrible. My sweet spot is around 150-200 grams.

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  • Alan says:

    Eating more frequently throughout the day isn't going to lead to a 'smaller insulin response.' Every time we eat food, any food, our insulin levels elevate, so the less often we eat the less this happens. Obviously food types are very important here also, as sugar is the worst substance to consume when it comes to fluctuating blood glucose, so the less carbohydrates the better. The Intermittent Fasting crowd get some great results and this is a factor in why. Fasting also seems to have lots of benefits with regards fat loss due to favorable hormonal responses in the body. The reply about feeling tired after a high carb meal is spot on, and again this is due to your blood glucose levels spiking and then crashing and the hormonal responses associated with it. Keep insulin levels stable and train the way Marc advocates and you're good to go!

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  • George says:

    Hi Mark. I found this article very useful, yet, I haven't found an article of yours where you talk about the balance of macronutrients. I mean, which's the optimal proportion between carbs, proteins and fats within your total calorie consumption?

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @George - I think the short answer is there is no optimal level of macronutrients for everyone and it depends on your specific goals. But from a fat loss perspective, there are what are called low fat and high fat phenotypes. I have an article planned which will go into this concept in more detail.

      What that means is that some people will lose relatively more fat on higher vs. lower fat diets, and vice versa. How do you know which one you are? Try both and see what is more satisfying for you. Personally, the sweet spot for me is around 40% carbs, 30% protein, and 25-30% fat as a range, which is considered low/moderate fat. I've also found this to work for many other people. From my perspective, it's easier to control calories with a low/moderate fat intake if you are actively looking to lose fat. If you are already lean, you can increase the fat calories to 40% or more, which is similar to the heart healthy Mediterranean diet. The challenge I find with higher fat diets in the 50-60% range like some variations of the paleo diet is I starving all the time. Again, it's not an exact science, so you need to see what works for you.

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  • George says:

    Thank's Mark, as always you have solved my doubts. I'll see what's best for me. Have a nice day!

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  • Scott says:

    I'd like to see more details on what to actually eat 6 times a day. I guess we're not talking a tin of beans for each meal. I'm putting everything into losing a lot of weight, and I've heard of 'grazing' before - it became functionally difficult for me I think. I wasn't sure what to have when.

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Scott - eating frequenly isn't for everyone and some people actually do better with intermittent fasting. With that said, I do think something simply like 3 meals and 1-2 snacks is very easy to keep up as long as you have your snacks predetermined/bought and you have a sense of meals you want. If you (1) don't know what meals you want to eat and (2) don't have snacks on hand, then eating more frequently can be very challenging. Here's a post that you may want to check out - Top 10 Fat Loss Foods

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  • Benedicte says:

    Hi Mark,

    Quick question! Would a fruit or two be sufficient for a snackmeal in the 6-meal-a-day plan?

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Benedicte - I don't see why not! That's pretty close to what I do.

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  • dan says:

    this article is non sense and has no scientific basis or legitimacy. look up intermittent fasting, which will give you amazing results and is a heck of a lot healthier and easier. i ate the frequent small meals that the fitness community preaches for years until i realized that that way may work it is not the most efficient or best way to go about things. if interested go to a site called leangains. mind. shattered.

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @dan - and also added an "Update" at the bottom of the article.

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    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @dan - I'm very familiar with LeanGains and intermittent fasting and have experimented with both. IF is not all roses though. I think you bring up a great point that this article (as I've previously stated in other comments) needs to be updated and will be updated. 95% of nutritionists recommend eating 3-5 meals/snacks per day and I don't think they are all stupid. They work every day with clients to see what works best and for MOST people (not everyone) 3-5 meals/snacks works well in my opinion. Again, will add a lot more info to the article.

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  • B.B. says:

    You could certainly see your skills within the work you write. The sector hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

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