Do we only need to eat 2 meals each day?
In the world of diets and nutrition, nothing stays the same for very long. Many moons ago a ‘three square meals’ a day was the standard approach to healthy eating; then we moved into the time of frequent snacking to keep the metabolism pumping and nowadays fasting is all the rage with some followers avoiding eating altogether for hours at a time. A shift toward less frequent eating to gain the range of health benefits sporadic fasting has been shown to offer naturally lends itself to the question of how many meals is actually enough? Indeed Elle MacPherson, who still today has one of the fittest, leanest physiques on the planet has been quotes as eating just twice a day to help maintain her figure. So in this day and age, in which many of us spend most of the day sitting, should we focus on eating two meals a day?
The first thing that should be noted around any discussion about diets in general is that there is not a one size fits all model. Every single one of us is different and as such as different energy demands based on our age, physical movement, exercise, body shape and type. And indeed the approach each one of us takes will also differ depending on what day it is and what the demands are we have on our body and our time. As such any suggestions or guidelines are that only.
What we do know though, is that most of us eat too much on a daily basis. Our portions are too large. We snack too frequently. We eat too late at night and we completely overeat on weekends. This when combined with the fact that we spend most of our lives barely moving means that if the goal is weight loss or even weight control, most of us need to eat far less. In reality, this is not so easy because we like to eat, a lot. And the mere thought of cutting back is enough to make even the strictest of dieter fall off the bandwagon very quickly.
What the concept of 2 meals a day does do, similar to what fasting does, is create a clear guideline that ultimately supports fewer calories being consumed. If we think of our food intake in terms of 2 meals, we are more likely to think of the meal as filling and substantial, as opposed to the small snacks and grazing approach to our diets which generally results in us eating 300-400 calories at a time, 4-5 times each day. On the other hand, focusing consumption on 2 larger meals, say 500-600 calories along with 1-2 small snacks of 100-200 calories still means our overall calorie intake is less than the frequent eating approach. In addition, larger meals tend to include more vegetables and be more satisfying that snacks, helping to manage appetite again supporting calorie control.
A daily calorie controlled eating approach that features 3 meals along with a couple of snacks requires plenty of time and attention to get the macronutrient and calorie balance right. Meals have to be planned and prepped, snacks prepared in advance and you need to know exactly which products to purchase at supermarkets to keep your calories in check. There is much room for error. On the other hand, focusing on fewer meals lends itself to a dietary approach that is easier to maintain and follow amidst busy, busy lives. It also tends to suit those who eat a larger meal later at night and do not find themselves overly hungry until mid to late morning.
As a dietitian working in this space for more than 20 years, the one thing I do know is that the best diet you can choose is one you can follow, long term. If this translates into fewer meals but better calorie control to support weight loss I am pretty happy.