While eating three square meals was once the norm and snacks were considered a culprit for American’s expanding waistlines, research now shows that eating small, frequent meals is the way to go.
Eating often has been shown to help control appetite, boost mood and concentration, and maintain muscle mass. So how often should you eat to reap the benefits? Aim to eat every three hours for a steady supply of energy throughout the day. Learn more about the benefits of eating often below.
The Benefits of Eating Often
Blood Sugar and Appetite Control
When blood sugar levels dip, cortisol (the body’s stress hormone) rises. This can lead to cravings, increased belly fat, hormonal imbalance, and decreased immunity. This increase and decrease can also affect your relationship with food. After a large meal, your brain releases chemicals that increase feelings of euphoria and sometimes sleepiness. Over time, your body sees food as a reward, making it more likely that you’ll reach for food (even if you aren’t hungry) when you feel stressed.
Concentration and Mood
Eating small, frequent meals throughout the day can improve your concentration and mood. Food provides glucose, which your body needs to stay focused and calm. If you wait too long to eat and then gorge yourself later, it can wreak havoc on brain function. When you wait too long to eat, your blood sugar levels fall, which causes irritability and agitation. When you eat a big meal later to make up for a missed meal, blood is diverted from your brain to your gut to aid in digestion. This can leave you feeling sleepy, foggy, and unfocused.
When you don’t eat often enough, your metabolism slows and works to conserve energy instead of burning it. Frequent eating is like constantly throwing wood on the fire. When you eat, your body has to burn fuel to convert it into usable energy. This process, known as the thermic effect, boosts your metabolism and increases calorie burn. For more information, read “How to Boost Your Metabolism.”
Maintain Muscle Mass
If you don’t eat often, the most readily available substance for the body to consume is muscle. The human body is remarkably resistant to fat loss. When it needs fuel, it will turn to its lean muscle before burning fat. This process is known as catabolism. By eating frequent meals and snacks, you can help preserve your muscle mass.
Simple Strategies to Eat Often
Eat Breakfast Every Day
When you wake up in the morning, your body is in a fasted state. This means that your metabolism is running on low and you’re burning less calories. If you don’t eat breakfast, your body will continue to break down your fuel stores (glycogen) and muscle, not fat, for energy. Eating breakfast can also help control your weight by keeping you from getting too hungry and reaching for unhealthy foods. For healthy breakfast ideas, read “6 Protein-Packed Breakfasts to Kickstart Your Day.”
While fitting in six meals a day can seem daunting, it’s possible with a little planning. To save time during the week, plan your weekly meals on Saturday and grocery shop on Sunday. A little preparation sets you up for a great day, both physically and mentally. Below is a sample meal plan if you like to work out after work.
- 7:00 a.m.: Meal #1 (breakfast)
- 10:00 a.m.: Meal #2 (shake or snack)
- 1:00 p.m.: Meal #3 (lunch)
- 4:00 p.m.: Meal #4 (shake or snack)
- 5:30 p.m.: Workout
- 6:30 p.m.: Meal #5 (Dinner)
- 9:30 p.m.: Meal #6 (Shake or Snack)
For a week of healthy meals, read “Prep Once, Eat for a Week: 10 Meals for $50.”
Bring Snacks to Work
Spending your entire day at the office shouldn’t limit your snack choices. Improve your focus, productivity, and nutrition by stocking your desk drawer or work fridge with healthy snacks. Here are five snack foods to help you stay satisfied.
- Walnuts – Walnuts are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Pair a handful of walnuts with a piece of low-fat cheese, your favorite fruit, or a bowl of oatmeal for a fiber-rich morning snack that will help you feel full longer.
- Apples – Apples are high in pectin, which helps suppress appetite. Eating an apple mid-day helps control blood sugar and may aid in weight loss. Eat it with a spoonful of nut butter (cashew, peanut, almond) to add muscle-building protein and healthy fat.
- Greek yogurt – Greek yogurt has twice as much protein as regular yogurt. Plus, it contains healthy bacteria, known as probiotics, to keep your digestive tract healthy. Top 6 to 8 ounces of Greek yogurt with 3/4 cup of berries for a midday snack.
- Green tea – Research has shown that green tea helps lower cholesterol and decreases the risk of diabetes and stroke. What’s more, it boosts metabolism to help you burn fat. Drink two to three cups of green tea throughout the day to reap the benefits. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, don’t drink green tea after 3 p.m.
- Beef jerky – Beef jerky is a great source of protein and comes in several flavors for variety. Opt for the 96% fat-free jerky when possible. Eat one to two servings of jerky with a piece of fruit, such as an apple or pear, for a balanced snack.
When you think of nutrition, think of it as providing fuel to your body. Small, frequent meals shouldn’t exceed your calorie needs, but should help you stay full, provide you with the energy you need to conquer the day, and help increase your chance of making great nutritional decisions.