I recently got a lovely email from a reader who has recently started swimming (awesome!) and had a question for me about food that I thought I’d also address here. She said that she was trying to cut down on her food without counting calories and to do so, she’s eating only three meals a day. No snacks, no second helpings, no desserts. She asked me for my input. Since I’m not a doctor or R.D., I can’t really give advice but I can talk about my own experience with making the transition to healthier eating. I recommend everyone see a registered dietitian or nutritionist to address any nutritional questions you may have.
Even when I was a kid, I ate more than 3 meals a day. I ate the typical 3 meals but then I also had the “after school snack” (usually it was something healthy my mom prepared instead of the junk food I wanted) and then dessert. When I was living on my own I pretty much ate three meals a day but that’s probably because I was bingeing at those three meals.
When it was time to lose weight, my goal was to eat 2,000 calories or less a day. That was a huge departure from the typical 5,000+ calorie a day I was used to eating. The first few weeks of the new diet plan was definitely a challenge. It was a rude awakening to reduce your caloric intake by more than half so abruptly. Perhaps I could have eased into it for a few days to get used to eating 4,000, then 3,000 then 2,500 calories a day until I transitioned to 2,000. But that’s not what I did.
Eating less than 2,000 calories a day was a math puzzle. If I ate 400 calories for breakfast, 400 calories for lunch, 100 calories in a snack, that left me 1100 for dinner and dessert. I had to find alternatives to the high calorie foods I wanted in order to fit into that math equation each day.
One thing I knew for sure: only eating 3 meals a day was setting myself up for failure. I knew it from the beginning. I’d eat a healthy, low calorie breakfast and then go to work and have 4-5 hours before it was lunch time. I’d start to get hungry and then consider going to the office vending machine for a bag of chips or a candy bar. That was not a recipe for success. I quickly started bringing snacks to work to tide me over until lunch time. A typical snack was an apple, orange, string cheese or maybe some crackers (measured out in a serving). It took the edge off before lunch.
I know myself. If I get too hungry or go too long in between meals, I get some blood sugar issues where I get shaky, cranky and have an overwhelming desire to EAT EVERYTHING IN SIGHT. No joke. It’s like the logical part of my brain goes on vacation and the primal “I’m starving” part of my brain takes over. I KNOW I’m not starving. But my brain sure doesn’t know that. Michael jokes that when I get home from the gym at night I come through the door like Kool-Aid Guy. 🙂
Thus began the habit of eating three meals plus snacks. To this day, I still eat several times a day. Breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, pre-gym snack, dinner, possibly dessert. Basically, I eat every 3 hours or so. This is not to say that I’m eating a huge meal 6 times a day.
Breakfast (7am) – 2 eggs, turkey sausage or bacon, coffee
Mid-morning snack (10am) – apple
Lunch (1pm) – soup and salad
Pre-gym snack (4pm) – Greek yogurt with fruit
Dinner (7pm) – chicken, steamed veggies, salad
Dessert (8pm) – chocolate and glass of milk
That above routine is pretty standard for me now. Why do we think three meals a day is the norm?
The number of meals eaten per day, along with the standard hour and fare for each, “are cultural patterns no different from how close you stand when talking to people or what you do with your body as you speak. Human beings are comfortable with patterns because they’re predictable. We’ve become comfortable with the idea of three meals. (source)
I found the article where I got that quote really interesting. It’s true: our eating patterns are created by ritual, habit, history and time perimeters. Lunch is mid-day. Dinner is around 6pm after school or work. But what happens if it’s noon and lunchtime but you’re not hungry? Maybe you ate a bigger breakfast or you just don’t have an appetite. How many of us eat anyway simply because it’s TIME TO EAT?
So which is better? On the flip-side I found another article that said for obese women, three larger meals a day was the better bet.
“Eating larger meals less often lowered blood-fat levels. Over time, consistently eating fewer, larger meals each day could lower the women’s blood-fat levels and thereby lower their risk of developing heart disease.” (source)
The article was a little vague for my liking and didn’t really explain their findings to my satisfaction. Finishing the article, I didn’t think “oh yeah! That makes so much sense and only eating 3 meals a day is healthier”.
I think it’s important to figure out what works for YOU. Everyone is different. Some people cannot eat breakfast or they feel sick. Some people need to eat immediately in the morning. Some people can’t eat after 6pm due to acid reflux issues. Some people get the munchies at 10pm and have a snack then.
Ask yourself the following questions:
Am I hungry? Is it boredom? Or am I really thirsty and dying for some water?
When was the last time I ate? Again, if it hasn’t been very long, maybe it’s thirst or boredom or emotional distress.
Could a small snack tide me over until the next meal?
Experiment. Try eating only 3 meals a day and see how you feel. If it doesn’t work, try eating smaller, more frequent meals. Eventually your body will let you know what works.
QUESTION: Are you a 3 meal a day person or 3 meals and snacks kind of person?