Does It Really Matter If You Have 2, 3 or 5 Meals a Day?

Is it better to eat three square meals a day or five smaller meals? What about snacks? Should you skip breakfast? Meal frequency has been a debate for many years, with strong arguments coming from both sides. For the average person, it can all feel utterly contradictory and confusing.

Thankfully, the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (a collaborative guide developed by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services), addressed meal frequency for the first time in its update. Find out what the research says about how often you should eat.

What the Research Says

What to eat, portion size and meal frequency all come into play when it comes to taking in enough nutrients to keep you healthy. A traditional American diet consists of three meals per day—breakfast, lunch and dinner. These days, however, Americans report eating more than five meals or snacks every day. So which is healthier?

Eating more often tends to be due to snacks, however, the definition between a meal and snack still is not clearly defined. According to What We Eat In America and National Health and National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys conducted between 1971 and 2010, American adults report eating an average of 2.8 meals and 2.3 snacks each day; today, data shows that Americans have on average 5.7 eating occasions per day. Although no amount of meals or snacks has ever been recommended, eating foods that are nutrient dense—which provide lots of nutrients for the calories they contain—has always been encouraged.

The Scientific Report does point out that most eating occasions (meals or snacks) occur at noon or in the evening. About 64 percent of people in the U.S. report consuming three meals per day, while 28 percent report eating two meals per day. Ninety-three percent of adults in the U.S. snack about two or three times per day. What is most interesting is the late-night snacking, which tends to include alcohol, added sugars, sodium and saturated fats, all which are recommended to be eaten in moderation. Added sugars and saturated fat tend to add unnecessary calories and can also lead to putting on extra pounds if eaten regularly.

So How Many Meals Should You Eat?

The Scientific Report concluded that there are many factors that play into how often you eat including your culture and family life. Whether you choose to eat five smaller meals per day because that works for you and your family or if you choose to eat three meals per day, both can be part of a healthy diet—if you're taking nutrients into account at every meal.

As a registered dietitian, I encourage clients to find a meal plan that fits their individual needs. Based on research that shows eating two meals won't necessarily get you all the nutrients you need, though, I do recommend choosing three medium-size meals between 400 and 600 calories, plus one to three snacks at 150 to 200 calories per day for optimal nutrition and satiety.

Creating a well-balanced meal is all about creating a well-balanced plate. When you lay out your meal, fill half your plate with vegetables, a quarter with whole grains or starchy vegetables, and one quarter with lean protein. Top it all off with some healthy fats—a slice of avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil—which have been shown to lower cholesterol levels and support heart health. The combination of fiber, protein and healthy fat will help keep you feeling satisfied for longer, which in turn keeps you from craving food items that aren't on par with your ultimate goals.

And if you are someone who needs snacks between meals, plan for them! Schedule a filling snack that includes protein, healthy fats and/or fiber to tide you over after workouts or during the afternoon slump. Consider simple snacks like sliced pear and low-fat cheese cubes, vegetable sticks and hummus, or apple slices dipped in peanut butter. If you regularly go five hours or longer between meals, pre-planned healthy snacks such as these should be part of your plan.

Remember, nutrition is individual and should fit your family culture and lifestyle, so do what is best for you, your hunger levels and your goals.