How Often Should You Eat?

What To Do if You're Eating Less but Gaining Weight

Breakfast with pancakes and hot chocolate

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Many people who are hoping to lose weight or maintain their weight wonder how often they should eat. This question is more complicated than it sounds. Should you eat one or two big meals or many small ones each day? Does fasting help or hurt when it comes to dieting? Countless nutritionists, doctors, and other health experts have theories about what works best but these recommendations are sometimes confusing and often contradictory.

For example, many popular diet plans include periods of fasting, while others discourage going too long without food to avoid putting your body into "starvation mode." This is why while some people believe that fasting sheds pounds, many others think not eating for long periods makes you gain weight—and both views may be right.

Essentially, all of the above perspectives include kernels of truth. But how do you piece them together to create an effective eating strategy for yourself? Below, we help you understand how the timing (and quantity) of what you eat impacts weight loss and maintenance.

Overview

There is a complex web of factors that determine whether someone gains, maintains, or loses weight. These include the size and nutritional content of your meals, your genes, and your activity level, physical fitness, and metabolism. Emerging evidence suggests that the timing of when you eat also matters. Each of these elements combines to influence body weight over time.

The overarching factor is simply the number of calories you eat and burn. So, in general, if you consume fewer calories than you use, you should lose weight. Alternatively, if eat more than you burn, you will gain weight. Maintaining your weight means hitting the sweet spot of taking in the same amount of fuel that you use up each day via exercise and living your daily life.

However, as most dieters know firsthand, this equation doesn't always seem to add up. The many studies showing contradictory results about meal frequency and weight attest to this fact.

Essentially, while many people who fast and/or cut down on calories lose weight, some who eat less may still gain weight.???????

Looking at the timing of what you're eating and the body's physiological efforts to maintain weight can help to sort out the somewhat unwieldy relationship between calories in and weight loss.

Meal Frequency

There are many different perspectives on the optimal frequency of eating, in general, and specifically for weight loss. While there is a lot of helpful research on this topic, one "right" or "best" way of timing your meals that will result in weight loss and/or maintenance has not emerged. This is likely because there are so many variables, from the types of foods eaten and each body's metabolism and nutritional needs to a person's ability to adhere to a diet plan.

In fact, while there are many studies that show eating more frequent meals leads to a lower risk of obesity and health complications (such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease), there are also many showing the opposite.???????????? Additionally, what happens during a controlled study may not always reflect eating in the real world.

There are many eating plan options, such as grazing (eating many, small meals), fasting (going stretches without eating), and sticking to the typical plan of three square meals a day. You might simply need to experiment to find the right meal timing for you—one that you feel good about and that you can maintain without burdensome effort.

Grazing

Some diets recommend eating small amounts of food every two to three hours, also known as grazing. Many studies have found, however, that grazing might not help you lose weight, particularly if you consume a lot of calories during each of these "snacks."????????????

The appeal of grazing for some people is that eating more often may help them feel full and satisfied with their meals while avoiding the dreaded hunger from more restrictive eating plans that may lead to overeating. However, the danger is that eating frequently may lead to consuming more calories overall.???????????? Others believe that eating often helps to keep their metabolism from dropping—which can happen if hunger causes them to move less, but this is not always the case.

If you're a highly disciplined and organized person who doesn't want to feel hungry (and enjoys nibbling throughout the day), then grazing could be an effective plan for you.

To make this option successful, ideally, you would need to spread out your target caloric intake over five to six daily small meals and snacks. If you're diligent about not going over your daily quota, you will likely see weight loss—but it can be challenging to apportion out calories precisely, and it can be tempting to take seconds, which can quickly add up if you're eating many meals per day. Plus, research shows that your body is prone to stimulate your appetite to recoup lost weight and/or calories, prompting you to eat more.?????

Starvation Mode

Intermittent fasting is a feature of many newer diets, which operate under the theory that cutting back calories significantly (or completely) for defined periods of time results in weight loss—and often it does. Popular, evidence-based methods include every-other-day fasting and fasting two days a week.????? However, people who lose weight this way sometimes find that they quickly regain pounds lost when they resume their normal eating habits. This effect is often attributed to putting your body into "starvation mode."

When people talk about starvation mode, they're typically referring to the body's response to skipping meals. The theory is that if you don't eat every three hours or if you skip meals, your metabolism immediately slows to preserve energy and prepare for starvation. The worry here is that your metabolism will grind to a halt and weight gain will occur.????????????

However, fluctuations in daily intake, at least in the short term, don't seem to have a huge or lasting impact on your metabolism—as long as you're not dramatically cutting your calorie intake. In other words, skipping occasional meals or limiting your eating window (see more on this below) isn't likely to negatively impact your weight loss efforts—it might even do the opposite. However, prolonged fasting and diet restrictions can result in a slower metabolism.

Adaptive Thermogenesis

Starvation mode is commonly confused with what researchers refer to as adaptive thermogenesis, which is a slowed metabolism. Even though the concept of adaptive thermogenesis has been validated in clinical studies, researchers don't usually blame shorter periods of infrequent eating or skipping meals for the slower metabolism, but rather restricting calories over a long period of time.?????? 

Adaptive thermogenesis can make it harder for people who have lost weight to maintain a healthy weight, which is sometimes why people who diet believe that they are eating less but still gaining weight. Studies have confirmed that people who have successfully lost weight typically have a slower metabolism than their same-weight counterparts who have never dieted.?????

Shorter Eating Windows

One strategy that has shown some promise is a hybrid of grazing and fasting, which is shortening your "eating window." This method involves restricting the time frame in which you eat all your calories to a period of anywhere from four to 10 hours. Sometimes, people can eat whatever they want during this window, or other times a set meal plan may be prescribed.

A growing body of studies is finding that a shorter eating window may boost weight loss.????? One study, in particular, found that more than half of adults consume food over a period of 15 hours or longer every day. The study suggests that reducing daily eating duration to around 8 or fewer hours per day can aid weight loss.??????????

A big plus of restricted-window diets is that many people can lose weight without counting calories or limiting the types of food they eat.????? The weight loss may be due to consuming fewer calories overall (such as by cutting out nighttime snacks) or by positive changes in metabolism. Still, the food you eat, your age, activity level, and other factors also make a big difference.

What You Can Do

It seems that the relationship between calories consumed and body weight is more direct with weight gain than with weight loss: You eat more, you gain weight. However, even that is not so exact. There's evidence that the body has mechanisms that resist changes in body weight, which is a big reason why losing weight and keeping it off is so hard.????????

The body's job is to keep you alive, and it works hard to maintain your weight, regardless of whether you are at an "optimal" or healthy weight. In fact, studies show that, in the short term, even big fluctuations in calories consumed often don't result in the extreme weight loss or gain that would be expected by merely calculating the calories eaten.???????

However, over time, sustained changes in eating habits do often provide effective results for losing weight and maintaining the new weight. Put another way, if you want to lose weight and keep it off, you have to make changes you can stick with for the long haul.????

Tips

Suffice to say, all this is complicated. There are no clear, one-size-fits-all answers, and you'll have to experiment to find the eating schedule that works best for you. So, where to start? Try these strategies:

  • Find out when you're really hungry, and eat only then. Jot down notes in a food journal about when you are most likely to have food cravings and when you are most likely to feel real hunger. You might also want to make note of times during the day when you experience energy dips. Then, schedule meals and snacks for those times.
  • Check your overall lifestyle. Examine your sleep schedule to make sure you are well-rested, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, and plan your meals so that those energy dips are less likely to occur as a result of hunger. Additionally, many people find that adding in daily exercise gives them more energy—and motivation to eat healthily.
  • If you want to shorten your eating window, do it gradually. If your current eating window is big, you can try to slowly reduce it by a half hour or a hour every few days. Whatever timing you end up with, aim to eat as often as you need to stay active and healthy.
  • Focus less on when you eat, and more on what. Choose nutritious foods that are naturally low in calories but high in fiber and protein to help you feel full while also keeping your overall calorie intake in line.
  • Remember that calories do still matter. If you're eating less often but eating foods that are high in calories (even if those foods are healthy), you'll have a hard time reaching your goal. Check your total daily calorie needs and try to stay within a few hundred calories of that target.
  • Talk to your doctor. If you're still struggling to lose weight or maintain it, check in with your healthcare provider to make sure that a medical condition or medication isn't the reason.

A Word From Verywell

Don't worry if your eating schedule is unlike what you see in magazines or on websites. Everyone's ideal schedule is different. What matters most is diet quality and overall health—and whether you feel good about your eating plan and are able to maintain it. Additionally, shifting your focus from weight loss to healthier eating can also help you find success (and better health) regardless of the number on the scale.

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