Updated: Aug 1, 2021
The discussion on weight loss is generally on what should you eat. When and how many times should you eat comes next. It is often neglected topic but is an equally important focus in weight loss.
The frequency and timing of meals is an equal area of concern in diabetes, as it is directly concerned with blood sugar control.
First of all this question does not arise for those looking for crash diets. It focuses on suddenly crashing down your diet to water and fruit juices, eating very less or nothing at all, until either their desired weight is achieved or they get exhausted and then 'crash' back to original eating habits. Nope!
Those who advocate that yes, one needs to eat even during weight loss, they speak frequently about spacing meals throughout the day. In short, it can be called as 6 meals a day (6M). Common words used for it are 'grazing', 'nibbling', etc.
The other rarely spoken diet pattern is traditional 3 meals a day (3M). Now you will say, this is how we have been eating everyday and because of that only we have gained excess weight.
But of course, that's not the case. The timing, content and quantity of the food matters. We keep on neglecting these food aspects, along with physical activity, in our routine life. And then one day realize that we can't see our feet while standing straight!
And apart from meal frequency and timing we also have to consider breakfast consumption and the distribution of daily energy intake, caloric restriction, and avoiding of night-time eating. A central role is played by two factors. First, fasting period between two meals. Secondly, all these factors are interconnected by our biological clock called circadian rhythm. Any food consumption pattern which deviates from these patterns, increases the risk of all those unwanted diseases. (1)
So what is 3 meals diet pattern?
As per 3 meals/day (3M) diet, one should have meals three times every day - breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not more.
No snacking or munching in between. Obviously!
The timing should be as per our biological clock. We are supposed to get up at sunrise (and sleep after sunset, not late night). So, the breakfast should be early morning before 9 am, lunch between 12 - 2pm and dinner between 6-8pm. Also important is to have somewhat fixed timings of meals daily.
The quantity should be such that breakfast should be heavy (700 Kcal). Lunch should be slightly heavy (600 Kcal). Dinner should be light (200 Kcal).
Content of the food should be like this - Breakfast and lunch should include all components of food - 40% carbohydrates, 35% fat, 25% protein. This is actually is our normal diet, unless somebody goes heavy like only eggs, chicken or fried items. The dinner should include more of fruits and green vegetables so that stomach gets fullness and body gets vitamins & fibers as well.
And what about beloved beverages? If you can't resist, you can have the ones without milk and sugar.
This is also called "Big Breakfast" diet.
There is also slightly changed pattern, whereby you can have slightly heavy breakfast and more heavy lunch. Dinner remains light. But the benefit of weight loss is maximum in Big Breakfast diet.
There were many scientific researches done to compare which meal pattern is better. Famous among them is by the Israeli endocrinologist Dr. Daniela Jakubowicz. Study included obese, diabetic people taking Insulin, average age around 68. So, it was a difficult group for weight loss, being already obese, insulin resistant and very aged. Research showed that people on 6M diet neither did lose weight nor improved blood sugar control. While, people on 3M diet lost nearly 6 kg weight and significantly improved their blood sugar levels. (2)
According to Prof. Jakubowicz, the improvements happened because people on 3M diet ate as per their biological clocks. The body is "optimized for eating in the early hours of the day and for fasting and sleeping in the evening and night".
According to Prof. Antonio Paoli, A regular meal pattern including breakfast consumption, consuming a higher proportion of energy early in the day, reduced meal frequency (i.e., 2-3 meals/day), and regular fasting periods may provide physiological benefits such as reduced inflammation, improved circadian rhythmicity, increased autophagy and stress resistance, and modulation of the gut microbiota.(1)
There is one more large study conducted over 50,660 people by Prof. Hana Kahleova et al. It gave many interesting conclusions. People who ate more than 3 meals/day experience gain weight. Breakfast eaters experience decreased Body Mass Index (BMI) compared to breakfast skippers. Breakfast as the largest meal experienced significant decrease in BMI compared to dinner as the largest meal. Also, lunch as the largest meal group experienced smaller than big breakfast group but significant decline in BMI than dinner as the largest meal group. (3)
Another study by Prof. Jakuboviwcz in obese women found that big breakfast group (700 kcal breakfast, 500 kcal lunch, 200 kcal dinner) experienced significant decline in weight, fasting glucose, insulin, insulin resistance, ghrelin hormones than big dinner group (200 kcal breakfast, 500 kcal lunch, 700 kcal dinner). Cholesterol levels in fact increased in big dinner group. (4)
Diet for weight loss is not just avoiding foods and depriving yourself the joy of eating. It only backfires. You cannot continue it lifelong. You revert to old dietary habits and fall in the same trap again.
It is about getting used to a lifestyle the way our ancestors from just 40-50 years before (farmers and workers, nomads, monkeys) have been living for centuries. Rise up early, eat well for the day ahead, have all kinds of seasonal and local food in your plate, do ample outdoor physical work and sleep tired and early. This actually summarizes above complex research discussion!
And animals do the grazing, not humans.
In modern times where nature of work and food has changed, the decision is about how we go closer to our natural way of life. The choices are to be made for when do you wake up and eat, how is your meal balanced (the usual stuff - more proteins, less fat and starch, no sugar and oil, more fruits and veggies), how many times you eat (or rather resist eating anything in between 3 traditional meals).
1) Paoli, Antonio et al. “The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting.” Nutrients vol. 11,4 719. 28 Mar. 2019, doi:10.3390/nu11040719
2) Jakubowicz, Daniela et al. “Reduction in Glycated Hemoglobin and Daily Insulin Dose Alongside Circadian Clock Upregulation in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes Consuming a Three-Meal Diet: A Randomized Clinical Trial.” Diabetes care vol. 42,12 (2019): 2171-2180. doi:10.2337/dc19-1142
3) Kahleova, Hana et al. “Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2.” The Journal of nutrition vol. 147,9 (2017): 1722-1728. doi:10.3945/jn.116.244749
4) Jakubowicz, Daniela et al. “High caloric intake at breakfast vs. dinner differentially influences weight loss of overweight and obese women.” Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.) vol. 21,12 (2013): 2504-12. doi:10.1002/oby.20460