6 Small Meals vs. 3 Regular Meals – Which is the Healthier Diet?

by Anjali @ The Picky Eater on August 30, 2010

Recently, I was talking to one of my friends who is trying to lose weight. She was telling me that she regularly only eats 2 big meals every day and usually skips breakfast. My immediate thought was: She needs to eat more frequently! Most people think that if they want to lose weight, they should just eat less and the weight will come off. That’s not exactly true.

The weight will likely come off, but it won’t stay off because the only reason you’ve lost weight is because you’ve severely limited your calories. As soon as you start eating normally again, you’ll gain the weight back, and on top of that, your body will begin to store that extra meal as fat fearing that you might decide to cut out that meal again in the future.

The reason for this is, when you start consuming drastically less calories, or have long gaps between meals (e.g. one meal at 12pm and one at 8pm with nothing else in between), your body goes into starvation mode. What does that mean? Basically, when there are long gaps between meals, your body moves from a fat burning mode to a fat preservation mode. That means that your body will start burning muscle instead of fat. This eventually causes a decrease in your lean muscle mass, which actually slows down your metabolism, and makes your body fat percentage goes up.

Also, when you eat only a couple meals a day, your blood sugar levels fluctuate wildly. Those blood sugar fluctuations are often the culprit for the crazy cravings we’ll get once we’re so hungry that any food – 5 chocolate chip cookies, 2 bags of chips, 1 whole pizza – will do. So even when you do eat your meals, you’ll end up overeating and canceling out any calorie restriction gains you accomplished during the day.

So does that mean that eating 6 meals a day is healthier than eating 3 meals a day? Not necessarily. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as that. Because the other part of weight loss that’s important is a simple math equation (my husband would love that I’m incorporating math into this post by the way!). So here’s the equation: Calories in – Calories out < 0.

Or, in other words, the calories you’re consuming must be less than the calories you expend throughout the day. That doesn’t mean that you have to burn 1600 calories at the gym alone – this includes calories you burn just being you – I mean technically, we’re burning calories even while we’re sleeping! Here’s a link to an awesome tool that will help you determine your your BMR – that’s your basal metabolic rate – the amount of calories you burn doing no activity whatsoever.

But I digress :) So back to the question – is eating 6 small meals a day healthier than eating 3 regular meals? Sort of. It’s only healthier if you aren’t consuming more calories as a result of eating more meals. So the key is – 6 small meals. That means that each mini-meal should be about 200-300 calories max – which puts you at a 1200-1800 calorie range per day – which is perfect.

The benefits of 6 small meals a day are:

  1. Keeps your metabolism going at a steady rate which allows you to burn calories efficiently
  2. Helps you maintain hunger cravings and random food binges – keeps your blood sugar steady which helps prevent hunger attacks
  3. Keeps your energy up!

The pitfalls of 6 small meals a day are:

  1. Overeating! Small means small! 1 slice of whole wheat toast with a slice of low fat cheese; or a handful of almonds with an apple count as mini-meals so be careful!
  2. Takes effort to plan out. If you’re doing well with 3 meals a day and you don’t tend to overeat in between meals, then this might not be the best plan for you.
  3. Many experts feel that trying to spread out the day’s calories rather than sitting down to regular meals may throw off the body’s internal clock making it forget how to recognize hunger and satiety cues to the point when you no longer understand what it’s like to be hungry but also never quite feel full. This is not a good thing.

So what’s the bottom line? If you’re the type of person who has the discipline and the patience to eat six small portions every day, can count calories, and you’re also the type of person to binge when you feel hungry – this could be the right fit for you. If you’re the type of person who enjoys sitting down to a regular sized meal and doesn’t have a tendency to overeat, then sticking to the traditional breakfast, lunch, dinner and one small snack is probably the best approach. Either way – the total calories you’re consuming must equal (or if you’re trying to lose weight, be less than) the calories you’re expending. And you should always be eating at least 3 balanced meals a day – don’t ever skip breakfast! :)

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

May Ling WU August 30, 2010 at 6:40 pm

I think it’s better to eat six small meals. I never get that really heavy feeling in my stomach and am never hungry. However, it is a lot of work to plan your day out and can be hard when eating out with friends etc.

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater September 18, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Yup – if you can stick to six small meals (which it sounds like you can) then that sounds like the right path for you! No one diet type works for everyone, and as long as you can make it work for you and ensure you’re not overeating, 6 small meals is perfect :) Thanks for sharing!

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Belinda @zomppa August 30, 2010 at 7:05 pm

I need to eat all the time…my issue is what you brought up – making sure that those 6 meals are smaller!

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater September 18, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Hi Belinda! One thing you can try to do to curb your hunger is to make sure that each meal you eat has a good amount of lean protein and fiber (e.g. nut butters + fruit, or a piece of fish + veggies, or an egg white omelete + fruit on the side) – that way it will fill you up and you may not feel as hungry throughout the day. Hope that helps, keep me posted on how things go!

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Kim (Liv Life) August 30, 2010 at 7:07 pm

I agree! I have eaten the 6 meal a day way my whole life. Actually, it’s really not 6 meals, but food every few hours. Sometimes it’s just an apple or a banana, mid morning. Or a handful of almonds… just something so that I don’t get that “I’m starved” feeling. When that comes all proper thoughts go out the window and I will just grab whatever is in sight.
Nicely written!

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater September 18, 2010 at 4:06 pm

Thanks so much Kim! I think the way you described it is perfect – it’s not like 6 full MEALS – but more like mini-meals or small healthy snacks in between breakfast/lunch/dinner. I often have fruit mid-morning too – it’s a wonderful healthy snack between breakfast & lunch!

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notyet100 August 30, 2010 at 6:55 pm

i am in for three balanced meals and ya breakfast is really important!

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater September 18, 2010 at 4:03 pm

I’m totally with you on that!

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Kristy August 31, 2010 at 3:12 am

I love eating 6 a day! If not I will def be grabbing at whatever I can get my hands on and that’s not good! :) Great post and info, thanks!

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater September 18, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Thank you so much Kristy! And thanks for sharing what works for you! :)

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Liz Bridges August 31, 2010 at 5:26 am

This was so sensible! It really all comes down to how much you take in and how much you burn. People want to make weight loss complicated. But it’s really not. It just takes strength, commitment, and willpower. That said, it isn’t always EASY!Plus, you have to track what times of day you are most hungry to see when you need to eat more.

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater September 18, 2010 at 4:11 pm

Thank you so much Liz! I’m so glad you liked this post :) You brought up a good tip – one way to figure out which way is best is to keep a food journal for a week – track what you eat / how much and when you get hungry. Then you can make adjustments to figure out the best long-term solution!

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suchitra August 31, 2010 at 12:21 pm

Nice! I love eating and completely agree that you need to have at least three balanced meals in a day- If you skip even one meal, you land up over eating the other meals…

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater September 18, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Totally agree Suchitra!! You said it well :)

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carla August 31, 2010 at 5:00 pm

I totally agree with the 6 small meals. I do meal plans for people on my site and I usually do 3 meals and 3 snacks. The total calories are between 1400-1800 a day. If you eat the right kinds of food you’d be surprised how much you can eat. Thanks for the post, I’ve retweeted it and added it to my FB page.

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anjalim August 31, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Thanks so much for the comment and for retweeting my post! I just visited your site and love it – looking forward to sharing recipes and tips!

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Dana - Food for Thought September 2, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Thank you so much for this! So often I hear people that are trying to lose weight say that they only eat one or two big meals per day and I cringe. You need to eat to keep your metabolism! I eat all throughout the day and am pretty healthy and trim.

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater September 18, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Exactly!! Starving yourself throughout the day is totally not the answer – you’ll just end up eating way more than necessary when you finally do eat, and like you said – your metabolism can get all messed up. It’s all about balance – and it sounds like you have found something great that works for you!

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Dien January 7, 2013 at 9:41 pm

I usually go for 4 medium-sized meals a day. Three meals are too few for me and the wait too long, and I lose track with how many meals and how much food I’ve consumed with six. Four meals with a four-hour wait in between works for my lifestyle.

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater January 10, 2013 at 12:06 am

That is great to hear Dien! I think I generally end up doing 4 meals a day too (breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner) spaced about 4 hours apart just like you! I think that anywhere between 4-6 meals is probably a good rule of thumb – but the key is, if you’re doing 6 meals to make them much smaller portions – or it defeats the purpose!

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denise March 18, 2013 at 12:50 pm

Everyone talks so much about eating 6 times a day, but personally that turns into me just overeating/eating all day. I feel much more in control when I KNOW i’m eating only 3 times a day. I recently cut out snacking and have lost 5 pounds with 3 meals: medium sized breakfast, medium lunch, small dinner. It’s important to have breakfast for sure and also important not too eat a lot at night. I also eat til I’m full, not stuffed, so that I don’t overeat or feel tired after a meal.

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Anjali @ The Picky Eater March 18, 2013 at 4:00 pm

Hi Denise! What you said totally makes sense. 3 meals a day that are balanced and keep you full is a great way to make sure you’re not overeating, especially if it works for you. Congrats on the weight loss btw! :)

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