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Hello! I’m Anjali. I’m a board certified health coach, author, wife, mom and food lover from the SF Bay area (now living in Seattle, WA!); with a passion for delicious food and a desire to make healthy eating easy, tasty and fun! Learn more about me here and stay for a while!

Anjali Shah

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

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When it comes to your diet, you may wonder what is best, to eat 6 small meals a day, or to have 3 regular meals a day. The truth might surprise you! Here I’ll explain the benefits and pitfalls of each, so you can decide what is best for you!

healthy small meals, salad and chickpea cakes on blue plate

When it comes to healthy eating, we all want to do what is best for our bodies whether that’s choosing the best multivitamin, or protein powder, or even knowing when to eat!

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!”

Eating less doesn’t always mean you’ll lose weight!

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.

woman trying to button her pants

Why does your body store fat if you’re eating less?

Your body stores fat when you start consuming drastically fewer calories, or have long gaps between meals (e.g. one meal at 12pm and one at 8pm with nothing else in between). As a result, your body goes into starvation mode.

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 go up.

Why do you get cravings when you’re super hungry?

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.

small meals including, banana, yogurt, rice cake, almonds, grape tomatoes, hummus, whole grain crackers, celery and red pepper sticks, blueberries, apricots, apple, and honey

Are 6 meals a day 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: 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.

Eating 6 meals a day vs. eating 3 meals a day is only healthier if you aren’t consuming more calories as a result of eating more meals.

The key is to truly eat 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.

Depending on your height, gender, weight, and age, you may have a slightly higher (or lower) recommended daily calorie intake.

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.

Once you find out your BMR, and calculate your daily exercise, you will have a better idea of approximately how many calories a day you should consume to maintain your weight.

If you want to lose weight, you must consume less than you are expending.

The benefits of 6 small meals a day are:

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

The pitfalls of 6 small meals a day are:

  • 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 a mini-meals so be careful!
  • 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.
  • 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.
three healthy meals, breakfast oats, chicken and rice lunch, salmon and vegetable dinner

Are 3 regular meals a day healthier than snacking throughout the day?

If eating 6 small meals a day seems like a challenge, then eating 3 regular meals a day might work better for you.

The key with both small and regular meals is making healthy choices, and staying within your calorie range.

Benefits of eating 3 regular meals a day:

  • Eating a minimum of three times a day helps you feel full and reduces hunger pains.
  • Eating regular meals helps with weight loss. Eating fewer than 3 meals increases your chance of overeating, and eating unhealthy high calorie foods.
  • Having clear parameters around when you start and stop eating helps create boundaries, and prevents grazing on food all day.
  • If you have trouble eating small meals, and end up eating all day, eating 3 meals helps you to eat fewer calories.
  • Eliminating eating between meals, helps to reduce excess calories.
  • You feel full after each meal, instead of feeling hungry not too long after having a small meal.
  • Eating three balanced meals a day helps you to be more mindful about what you’re eating, rather than mindlessly snacking throughout the day.
  • You’ll be less likely to cave to unhealthy snack foods.

Pitfalls of eating 3 regular meals a day:

  • It takes some planning. Preparing a healthy breakfast, lunch, and dinner takes a bit of planning. Using a meal plan template can help!
  • It’s easy to overeat! If you’re hungry and just sitting down to a meal, it’s easy to eat too fast, and eat more than you actually need! Take your time, and allow your brain to catch up with your body so you don’t consume too much at each meal.

So what’s the bottom line?

Now, it’s time for you to decide what works best for you and your lifestyle.

Why you should choose 6 meals a day…

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.

Why you should choose 3 meals a day…

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!

Be sure to check out these other helpful healthy eating guides!

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