How Important is Meal Timing?



One of the more controversial aspects of nutrition is the subject of meal timing referring to how often you eat and drink during a 24-hour cycle.  For example, most people believe that having a “healthy” breakfast is vital, but is that really true?

Contrary to popular belief, research suggests that eating many small meals throughout the day does NOT speed up the metabolism, and skipping a meal will not make you fat.   In addition, breakfast is NOT magic!  You do NOT have to eat breakfast to be healthy, have high energy levels or be successful working out!  That does NOT mean it is bad to eat breakfast or eat frequent meals!

In fact, skipping a meal or two, also known as “intermittent fasting” can be beneficial in lowering insulin and increasing fat burning.

So is it bad to eat frequently?   The short answer is no.   The advantage of more frequent meals is that you are likely eating before you are very hungry which is important because if you let yourself get really hungry you will tend to overeat and eat much more quickly.      So for many people more frequent food intake can help – particularly if all meals and snacks are balanced with some protein, a little fat, and some carbohydrate (ideally with 20% or more of the carbohydrate coming from fiber which helps with satiety and blood sugar control).

At the end of day if you remember nothing else remember this – calories DO count!   Your weight (and to some extent your health) does in fact depend on not overeating calories relative to what you burn.   There are MANY strategies for doing this and the most important thing is to develop a lifestyle that you can stick with that provides adequate quantities of calories (without overeating) along with adequate protein, fat, and carbohydrates and micronutrients.

Low fat versus Low Carb Diets and Meal Frequency

The dietary approach you employ such as low-fat vs low-carb of can have a big influence on ideal meal frequency.    For example, low fat eaters tend to eat more sugar and starch and their bodies become proficient at using carbohydrate for energy.   This is particularly true of the brain which can only burn two fuels:  sugar (glucose) or ketones which are produced from fat in the liver.     So the brains of low fat dieters need glucose on a regular basis since that becomes the preferential brain fuel – so for these folks regular meals spaced 3 – 4 hours apart are essential!

For True low carb eaters who derive less than 20% of their total calories from sugar and starch – it is a whole different story.    Low carb eaters, and particularly Ketogenic Diet Devotees, force their body to use fat as the primary fuel.    After adapting to this approach (1 – 3 months) the body becomes trained to use fats as the primary fuel and becomes adept at converting fatty acids into ketones which the brain loves as well as all other cells of the body!   So paradoxically despite the fact they eat less carb – they have much more stable blood sugar levels and in fact can operate very well with low blood sugar because the brain gets its energy supply from ketones.    For these folks meal frequency is much less important, and it becomes easy to eat only 2 meals per day while maintaining high levels of physical and mental energy.

Some people include types of fasting in their lifestyle with the most popular being intermittent fasting which involves eating within an 8-hour window each day and fasting the other 16 hours.     There are many potential health benefits associated with intermittent fasting but it is NOT for everyone.

Do NOT use any type of fasting unless approved by your physician if any of the following are true:

  • You are underweight with a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 or less
  • You are malnourished
  • Children should NOT fast! They need nutrients for continued growth; if your child is obese, consider cutting him or her back on refined grains and sugar to promote weight loss
  • Pregnant and breastfeeding women should NOT fast because a consistent flow of nutrients must be shared continually with the baby to ensure its well-being
  • If you take medications that should be taken with food you will need to be very cautious about fasting and consult with your physician first.   This is especially true for diabetics and those with gout.