Healthy eating 15 August 2023

How often should you eat?

We talk to Dr Luke Powles about meal scheduling, whether you should eat three meals a day, and how to avoid unhealthy eating patterns

Health advice around the importance of meal timings is often conflicting and it can be hard to know how often you should eat – is it important to eat three meals a day, have breakfast, lunch and dinner at set times, eat lighter meals dotted throughout the day or keep a strict no-snacking policy?

Person in a kitchen making a healthy lunch.

Daily life can be hectic and fitting rigid mealtimes into an already busy schedule can leave us feeling pressured and stressed about our eating habits. But Dr Luke Powles, Associate Clinical Director for Bupa Health Clinics, says timings shouldn’t be our priority.

Is timing everything?

“What matters most is what we’re eating and how much we’re eating,” says Dr Luke. “Daily calorie intake, portion size, and the quality of your food are more important than the time and frequency of our meals.”

The established guide is that men should aim for around 2,500 calories a day, while the figure for women is around 2,000 calories (although these may vary depending on age, metabolism, and exercise levels).1

Dr Luke says, “Eating a healthy, balanced diet can help you feel good and stay healthy. Where you can, choose nutrient-rich whole foods and lean proteins over processed foods containing saturated fats and added sugar.”

“While our eating patterns need to suit our life and work schedules, it’s best to avoid eating large meals too close to bedtime if we can help it,” says Dr Luke. “While we shouldn’t go to bed hungry, eating before bed may disrupt our sleep and means our calories will be stored as fat instead of being burned for energy. Ideally, eat around 2-3 hours before bed, and if you need a snack later in the evening opt for fruit, vegetables, or yoghurt where possible.”

Dr Luke continues, “healthy snacking can help to bolster our nutrient intake during the day and help prevent us from becoming overly hungry. Portion size is also an important part of a healthy diet. Recommended portion sizes can be different depending on our age, sex, and how active we are, and is particularly important for those of us trying to lose weight.”

Is it ok to skip breakfast?

Human eating patterns have changed throughout history, and the way we eat today has largely been shaped by the 9-5 workday through necessity and convenience. While some may find that a healthy breakfast gives them energy and focus in the mornings, others might respond better to a routine where they eat later in the day.

Dr Luke says “Everyone is different – what works well for one person might not work so well for another. If you wake up feeling hungry, then eating a larger breakfast may suit you. Alternatively, you might feel perfectly comfortable waiting until mid-morning or even lunchtime before eating, and that’s fine too. More important is to keep our choices healthy and balanced.”

Circadian rhythm

While eating three meals a day might not be paramount, consistent meal timing has been linked to such benefits as weight loss, an increase in energy2, and a reduction in metabolic risk factors for chronic disease.3

Dr Luke explains, “Eating at consistent times can help to promote a healthy circadian rhythm, which helps you to feel energised when you’re awake and sleepy before bed. Weighting your calorie intake towards the first half of your day can help this too. That could mean a larger breakfast or lunch and smaller dinner.”

It’s also helpful to remember that our circadian rhythms change as we age. Our circadian rhythm, or ‘body clock’ is most associated with how it relates to our sleep pattern (and is the reason why it’s important to access natural light in the morning). But more than this, our circadian rhythm regulates all our biological and physiological processes including our digestion, meaning that our bodies digest food differently at different times of the day. And as our circadian rhythm changes throughout our lifetimes, so it is likely that the times we prefer to eat will change too. So, how often should you eat?

“More important than a one-size-fits-all approach to how much, and how often you should eat is for individuals to listen to their bodies and determine what’s right for them,” says Dr Luke.

Intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting, or time-restricted eating is where you choose to go for periods of time without eating, or eating very little, in between periods of eating normally. This is a way of mimicking ancestral eating patterns, which would have meant longer periods without food in between successful hunts and forages.

There are different forms of intermittent fasting, including the 5:2 diet (reduced calories for two days a week), alternate day fasting, and the 16:8 plan (restricting your eating window to eight hours a day). The idea behind intermittent fasting is to give our bodies a break from digesting food.

Fasting may trigger a process called autophagy, where damaged cells are removed from the body. There is evidence that increased autophagy may help the body defend against several diseases, including cancer 4 and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. 5

While studies have shown intermittent fasting might offer potential health benefits over the short term, including improved metabolism 6, reduced inflammation 7, and lower blood sugar levels 8, more research is needed to understand the full impact and potential risks of intermittent fasting over the long term.

Fasting should be avoided if you are pregnant, have diabetes that requires insulin treatment or other specific medications that can lower blood sugars, have a history of disordered eating, or suffer from anxiety or depression. Other conditions may also be affected with intermittent fasting so if you have any health issues and you’re not sure, please check with a healthcare professional first.

Key takeaways:

  • Keeping consistent mealtimes can help promote a healthy circadian rhythm
  •  A healthy, balanced diet will help you get the nutrients you need 
  • Choose whole foods over processed foods where possible
  • Keep an eye on portion sizes
  • Eat according to your lifestyle – if you exercise regularly, you will have different nutritional needs, and may prefer to arrange your eating schedule around workouts
  • Your appetite and preferred eating patterns may change as you get older
  • Healthy snacking can help you avoid overeating at mealtimes
  • There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to how much, how often, or how many meals you should eat. Listen to your body and determine what’s right for you