Is it healthier to eat 5-6 meals per day?

April 13, 2010 BY: LISA

Interview for “Women’s Health” Magazine-

Meal Frequency and the effect on weight loss and metabolism

  1. We are told that eating 5-6 smaller meals every day is a great way to keep our metabolism active. Is this true, and if yes, why?
    Regular eating is the key to keeping your metabolism active, however, whether regular eating means 3 meals a day or 5-6 meals per day depends on the individual and their lifestyle. When people skip meals their metabolism can decrease so as to put itself into survival mode. That is, by slowing the metabolism down, energy can be conserved and the body can remain at the same weight regardless of the amount of food consumed. Our bodies have a built-in protective mechanism to sustain us for a short period, such as in times of famine, be it a true food shortage or self imposed by meal skipping. Eating regular meals means that the body’s metabolism does not have to decrease. This has been observed time and time again in people who have previously skipped breakfast. When they start eating it again they describe increased hunger and the need to eat more over the day than they have before. This can cause anxiety about weight gain, however it is a demonstration that the metabolism is starting to increase again.

    2. How might eating 5-6 meals a day pose a problem to those at risk of overeating?
    Prescribing everyone should eat 5-6 meals per day may be a disaster for some people, as those prone to over-eating may simply used it as an excuse to eat more. The idea with trying to eat more frequently in order to create weight loss is that the size of meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) should decrease and small snacks are added in. If you don’t have control over your meals, the portion size of the main meals may not decrease and you would not be successful in creating a calorie/kilojoule deficit for weight loss.

    3. Is eating 5-6 meals a day a wise option for everybody? Why or why not?
    The recommendation to eat 5-6 small meals per day may work for some, as it is making an individual eat differently to how they usually eat. If it’s for weight loss then it is making them eat less than normal, or alternatively if they tend to skip meals, it is getting them to eat more. Thus it becomes a prescriptive way of eating =“diet”, in that it tells you when and how much to eat. However like any diet, if it doesn’t fit your lifestyle then you won’t be unable to sustain it and you’ll soon stop and go back to normal eating, meaning your weight goes back to normal too.

    4. What would you recommend for those who may not have time in their work day to eat a variety of small meals throughout the day?
    It’s important to eat appropriate sized snacks and meals when you are hungry. If this means that you are only hungry at lunch time then that’s when you eat, if you get hungry at other times, in the work day, then a piece of fruit or handful of nuts is a quick and easy  way to grab a bite to eat. The important thing is to eat at some stage during the day and not to dismiss food in favour of eating an excess amount of dinner.

    5. Why has eating three meals a day been typically labelled as bad for our health and metabolic rate?
    When each new or fad diet comes along it takes the place of the old messages whether they were true or not. The last craze left people with the feeling that carbohydrates were bad, but scientifically we know that carbohydrates provide the lowest amount calories per gram out of all the major components in food, and they have a significant number of vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. Research has shown that it doesn’t matter whether you eat 3 or 5-6 meals per day, you can be healthy, lose weight and maintain your metabolism either way. Health is more about food choices and portion sizes, as well as eating regularly.

    6. What groups may benefit from sticking to three meals a day?

If you tend not to feel hungry between meals then eating three meals per day will be suitable for you.  If you have a really busy lifestyle and don’t get the time to eat more than three times per day, then this option will suit you too. However if you find that you are over eating at these three meals and putting on weight, then it may be better for you to add in a snack  between meals. This may help in that you are not so hungry for meals and are better able to control the amount that you are eating.


7. What would you recommend as the most important meal of the day and why?
It is important to eat regular meals to maintain your metabolism; however breakfast is a very important meal.

  • Breakfast eaters are more likely to be of normal weight compared to non-breakfast eaters. This is important in preventing child obesity.
  • Breakfast improves alertness, concentration, mental performance and memory.
  • Breakfast helps get you going in the morning it provides energy and important nutrients.
  • Research has shown as many as one in four children go to school hungry. Those who skip breakfast are more likely to snack on less nutritious meals during the day, resulting in higher intake of fat, which contributes to weight gain.
  • Breakfast can help to increase a person’s mood.  That’s why people get tired and irritable when they miss breakfast.
  • Breakfast eaters have higher intakes of essential nutrients such as carbohydrate, dietary fibre and certain vitamins and minerals. It has been shown that if breakfast is missed, the nutrients normally provided by breakfast are not replaced during the rest of the day.
  • Breakfast literally means ‘break the fast’. So given it could be around eight hours since your body last had any food, eating breakfast is an important meal of the day for people of all ages.
  • Healthy Eating is the key to healthy living. Starting the day with breakfast is a simple way to help make a difference to overall well-being, and your ability to function well over the day.

Sourced from the Healthy Eating A-Z on the DAA website

8. What are some healthy eating tips you would recommend for those trying to find out what eating plan is best for them?

Ask yourself:

When are your hungry times? It is important to eat when you are hungry, however eating appropriate portions is crititcal for maintaining your weight. An Accredited Practising Dietitian can help you if you are having problems maintaining a healthy weight.

What fits in best with your lifestyle? There is no point in starting something because it’s the latest fad if it doesn’t fit into your lifestyle. In order to have a long term benefit to your weight and metabolism you need to be able to sustain any changes you make. If it doesn’t suit you and your family it won’t last, any benefits will be short term only.

If you skip meals why does this happen? Maintaining your metabolism relies on regular eating so if you are skipping meals you need to figure out why. Are you getting up too late? Don’t have the food in the house when you need it? Thought and planning can help  you get around these problems.

Do you get in 2 fruit and 5 veg? These can make quick easy and healthy snacks with a bit of planning.

9. Why is it important to recognise when our body is full? And how can we learn to read our body’s hunger signals?

Being able to recognise when you are full means you can stop eating before you overeat. Weight problems are created by eating as little as one slice of bread too much each day, for a period of time. Healthy eating and maintaining a healthy weight is a series of good decisions and good planning. Your eating decisions, that is to know when to eat and when to stop, depends on your ability to know when you are actually hungry and then when you are full. Hunger is a feeling in your stomach that you get after not having eaten for a period of time. So if you’ve just eaten dinner the feeling you get is less likely to be hunger and more likely to be from boredom, habit or some other emotion. It is important to recognise that these feelings may not be hunger. Learning to discern what is habit and what is hunger is an important step in managing a healthy weight.

10. What would you suggest as an example of a good daily food model?

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating shows the different food groups that you should choose foods from daily in order to achieve a healthy diet. The guide shows the basic proportions that food should make up; the majority of your daily intake ideally comes from vegetables, cereals, rice, pasta bread and fruit and smaller serves of meats and other animal products and occasionally higher fat and sugar foods. The Healthy Diet Pyramid also recommends eating in these similar proportions.

Answers prepared by Lisa Renn, Accredited Practising Dietitian. (APD)



  1. Looks like the simple message is be careful about food choices and portion sizes.

    John Naismith
    April 14th, 2010
  2. There is a critical shortage of inframotive articles like this.

    February 28th, 2017

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