Three meals a day is a long-lasting tradition among Americans, but where did the arbitrary number come from, and is it even good for you? We look at some facts and myths about how many meals you should be eating daily.
Note that this article is meant to provide some general facts and not meant as individual medical advice. See your nutritionist or doctor if you're considering changing your diet or meal habits.
Myth: Breakfast sets the calorie intake for the day.
This myth is prevalent among people seeking to lose weight. Eating the right things for breakfast — and at the right time — boosts metabolism and sets the tone for what kind of food and calories you eat throughout the day, says this myth.
In truth, eating a healthy breakfast can set the mental tone about food for the day, especially if you're someone who works well by setting habits. But it doesn't necessarily magically boost metabolism or cause you to eat less throughout the day. You have to follow through with good eating choices and exercise that day.
Fact: Breakfast is an important meal.
That being said, breakfast is still an extremely important meal. It follows the fasting of the night, where you may be going seven to 10 hours without food. Your body needs the energy boost from breakfast to help regulate blood sugar and get you moving for the day.
Myth: Eating six meals a day leads to automatic weight loss.
Another myth that's popular among people looking to lose weight is that eating more but smaller meals leads to eating less, which equals weight loss. However, a University of Ottawa study indicated that splitting meals into six instead of three didn't provide any additional weight-loss benefits for people already adhering to a low-calorie diet.
Another study didn't find evidence that more meals lead to increases in fat loss, but it did note that eating more meals a day could make some individuals want to eat more.
Fact: Multiple smaller meals or healthy snacks throughout the day have positive health benefits.
Just because more, smaller meals isn't the key to instant weight loss doesn't mean this type of eating habit is without benefits. Not waiting so long between meals or snacks means you're less hungry when you do eat, which creates a situation that helps you make better nutrition choices.
Plus, for seniors who need to keep their blood sugar in check, regular snacking is a good habit. Blood sugar can start to fall around three hours after eating, and if you wait as much as five hours, blood sugar can tank to a degree that you reach for whatever food is handy — whether it's healthy or not.
Myth: There's a magic formula of food intake for health and wellness.
So, if three or six isn't the magic number of meals in a day, what is? The truth is, there's not a magic number of anything that's right for every person. That's true for meals, calories, sodium and a range of vitamins and minerals.
Every person is unique, and your needs can even change as you age or face different challenges in life. Learning your own nutrition rhythms and sticking with them is important to living your best life.