One of the most frequent questions about eating is knowing how many times a day you have to eat in order not to gain weight and even lose weight. Many people believe that doing it many times during the day helps you lose weight more than doing it just 3 why? because they consider that, in this way, metabolism is accelerated and more calories are burned. But, Is that statement true? As explained to CuídatePlus Sara López Oliva, registered dietitian-nutritionist at the Professional College of Dietitians-Nutritionists of the Community of Madrid (Codinma), “The number of meals per se does not define weight gain or loss per se.”
The times we eat every day is not as important as the quality of what we eat. It is true that in Spain there has always been talking about the importance of “Eat 5 meals a day”, but not for everyone this formula is indicated. “This recommendation may be suitable for many people, but not in a generalized way, especially if the selection of foods that is eaten and the quantity is not the healthiest ”, points out the nutritionist.
Julia Ocón Bretón, from Nutrition Area of the Spanish Society of Endocrinology and Nutrition (SEEN), is more cautious in his statements. The expert recalls that “There is still a lot of controversy in relation to the number of times to eat a day, since there is not enough evidence to recommend a pattern of few or many daily dietary intakes ”.
Thus, there are studies that indicate that “Eating 2 or 3 times a day could result in the same weight loss as eating 6 or more times, because what determines weight loss is the total amount of calories eaten throughout the day, regardless of whether these calories are spread over one or ten meals.
But there are also studies that indicate that “eating several times a day could be more beneficial, in terms of maintaining healthier body composition, than doing it less often, since in this way a loss of muscle mass is avoided, which translates into more adequate levels of glucose, triglycerides, cholesterol, and insulin”.
Perhaps the most powerful theory is the one that relates to eating more times a day with satiety. And it is that “this way of eating could have a satiating effect in the person and better control the appetite and the feeling of hunger, avoiding binge eating or snacking with the consequent extra intake of calories ”, explains Ocón Bretón.
Therefore, the advice of the nutritionist López Oliva is to establish a diet in which “the number of meals is defined according to the context of each person, in such a way that it allows us to eat what we need without going through uncontrollable periods that lead us to binge or consume less suitable products ”.
In the opinion of the Codinma nutritionist, the key lies in “adapt the quantities to our needs and distribute them in the frequency that best suits us for our day to day, controlling our appetite or other needs that we may have ”.
Speed up metabolism
The thermic effect of food or thermogenesis induced by diet “refers to the number of calories our body consumes to assimilate or process the food we eat,” explains Ocón Bretón, this means that “our body burns calories in the process of digestion, absorption, and metabolism of nutrients ”. In this role, “the protein they are the nutrient that consumes the most energy in its metabolization ”.
Therefore, according to this premise, “it might seem that the more times food is eaten, the more calories are burned, but the reality is that increasing the number of meals per day does not appear to significantly improve diet-induced thermogenesis”, Says the expert. That is to say, “not by eating more often you spend more”. And this is so because “it seems that the calories burned to digest food depend more on the total daily caloric intake than on how those calories are distributed throughout the day.”
So how many meals do you have to make?
An exact number cannot be defined as “the healthiest” but, in general, “if a recommendation can be made according to our culture, which is those 5 daily meals”, indicates the nutritionist from Codinma. For the expert, in these 5 meals, it should be taken into account “the relevance of breakfast, which has been shown to have health benefits and help in weight loss since it helps to balance the diet, avoid the feeling of hunger, and with it possible compensation, and improves performance during the day ”.
The recommendation of Ocón Bretón is “to follow a healthy diet, that is, a varied and balanced one that includes proteins, carbohydrates, fats monounsaturated, fiber with satiating effect, minerals, vitamins, and trace elements ”.
The only basis for weight loss is “reducing caloric intake and increasing energy expenditure.” Therefore, “in addition to a hypocaloric diet (restrict 500 Kcal to the calories that the person usually consumes), physical exercise should be added as a way to increase energy expenditure ”, points out the endocrinologist from SEEN.
Fast, yes or no?
Fasting and its relationship with weight loss is another of the issues that arouse the most doubts in nutrition and, furthermore, is closely related to the number of meals a day that should be done throughout the day. If I fast, how many meals should I eat per day?
First of all, as Ocón Bretón clarifies, “it is important to emphasize that fasting cannot be considered a diet, since this guideline implies restricting food for a certain time, while the concept of diet refers to the habitual intake of food and beverages ”.
After this important qualification, the expert points out that there are different types of fasting. Thus, “a fast with a total absence of oral intake, that is, in which food or water is not taken (such as accidents, shipwrecks, etc.), can lead to death within a few days from dehydration and kidney failure (kidney failure) ”, he warns. On the other hand, “when water is drunk and, in addition, minerals and vitamins are ingested (it occurs in cases of therapeutic fasting), death would occur later.”
On the other hand, there is the modified fast, “Employed under medical supervision in cases of obesity severe to achieve rapid weight loss where ingested protein, water, vitamins, and minerals ”, he explains. This fast “has not been shown to be effective in long-term weight loss,” he notes and advises: “It is a ketogenic diet with significant side effects “.
He intermittent or sporadic fasting with daily or weekly frequency is another type of fast that “consists of staying a few hours a day or a few days a week fasting, alternating it with a normal intake of fluids and food”, he defines.
According to the endocrinologist, “it is evident that with total fasting, with therapeutic fasting or with modified help weight loss is achieved, but with significant health risks and abundant side effects ”. Therefore, “we must never forget that in any fasting situation we must always ensure the supply of energy to the vital organs, preferably the brain.”
And it is that “it must be taken into account that” stopping eating “does not educate to learn to maintain a healthy diet and, in some vulnerable people, it could trigger an eating disorder,” he warns.
Within intermittent fasting, there are various formulas, “the most common being those of daily periodicity (at least 12 hours of fasting) and weekly (generally a day or two a week of fasting, followed or not) ”, says Ocón Bretón.
Within the daily periodicity, “the 16/8 guideline is the most common and it focuses on fasting for 16 hours, which usually include 8 hours of sleep, allowing intake for the next 8 hours ”. Generally “the food contribution is made from 10 in the morning until 6 in the afternoon.”
Within the weekly periodicity, “the most popular is called”diet 5: 2, which advocates eating “normal” five days a week and reducing the intake severely (around 75%) the following two days ”.
What happens to the body at the time of fasting?
Given the fasting situation, as explained by the endocrinologist “there is an adaptation by the body that will lead to changes in body composition such as weight loss ”.
It should be known that “the greatest weight loss when beginning the fast is at the expense of loss of body water and is that the loss of water is accompanied by the elimination of minerals, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium”.
Later, “the weight loss is also due to the loss of fat and muscle mass. After a week of total fasting, the loss of water decreases and the loss of fat and muscle persists, ”he reports.
There are some studies that have shown that “intermittent fasting can help with mild weight loss and it could also provide health benefits, improving obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, hypertension and reducing markers of systemic inflammation and oxidative stress that are associated with atherosclerosis ”.
But it must also be made clear that “some of these studies have been carried out with animals and those published in humans on this subject are still scarce. Furthermore, they are short-term studies to draw conclusions with some certainty ”, he clarifies.
Regarding weight loss and the differences between a daily and weekly schedule, the expert points out that “a daily intermittent fasting schedule has not been shown to be superior to employment compared to a weekly schedule.”
Among the possible side effects of intermittent fasting “there are headaches, dizziness, difficulties in maintaining concentration, decompensation of previous chronic diseases, a deficit of nutrients or impaired absorption of medications”, He concludes.