Three meals a day. That’s what you should eat, according to conventional Western wisdom. But I did not follow that rule for a long time. I eat a lot, I don’t like to cook and I have a bad habit of skipping meals until I die of hunger.
I’m not alone. According to the National Health and Nutrition Survey, the proportion of people consuming three meals a day dropped significantly from the 1970s to 2010 (73% to 59% for men and 75% to 63% for women). I would venture to assume that these numbers have declined even more in the 12 years since that survey, as stress and burnout have reached high temperatures in recent years. An informal survey of my friends this year found that only nine out of 25 eat three square meals a day.
But does it really matter if you eat three meals, one or six? And if it’s so important, then why is it so difficult? I talked to a nutritionist and dived into the research to find out. Here’s how my own eating habits have changed for the better.
Three meals a day: a story of origin
While we now take this for granted, dividing your daily diet into three meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – has not always been the standard, and it is still not in some places in the world. Prior to industrialization, as New York University food historian Amy Bentley told Atlantic, people in the U.S. tended to eat only two large meals, fueling their bodies to work in the countryside, outdoors. In ancient Rome, it was customary to eat one large meal, plus two small, light meals.
In the U.S., our eating habits are now usually organized around our work or school days. But cultural norms aside, there is no scientific reason to eat exactly three meals a day.
“The number of meals a day is not crucial in itself,” said Marissa Kai Miluk, a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in stopping overeating. “Every person is different and there is research on all sides of the spectrum how many times a day you should eat.”
Over the years, there have been studies showing the benefits of eating more often, as well as studies showing the downsides. Some research has also revealed the advantages of less frequent, larger meals and – you guessed it – the disadvantages of that.
In addition, the recommendation of three meals a day did not come out of nowhere. In one sense, it all comes down to math: the average adult needs 2,000 calories a day, and you’re only awake for so many hours. “In all peer-reviewed research and health practices, three meals a day is a general recommendation to encourage consistent, adequate energy intake,” Miluk said. “Unless someone is seriously short of time or safe access to food, I would not recommend eating less than three meals a day, as this would require a large intake in one meal to meet basic needs,” she added.
Still, math can change depending on your health needs and schedule, not to mention a bunch of other factors that are less measurable – like, in my case, a love of snacks.
Consistency is more important than the number of meals, says Miluk. Skipping meals, waiting all day for food and other inconsistent eating patterns can have a variety of side effects, from high blood pressure to high or low blood sugar.
So how do you know if your diet is healthy?
“Frequent mood swings, hanging, erratic cravings, insatiable hunger, eating with a sense of urgency and overeating are common signs that you may need to rethink your eating patterns and attitude towards food,” Miluk explained.
But eating regular meals is, somehow, much harder than it seems, at least for people like me.
Why eating three meals a day is so hard
Sometimes the choice to deviate from the schedule of three meals a day is just that – a choice. But even if you want to eat real breakfast, lunch and dinner every day, it can be a challenge. You can’t always control when you get a moment to sit down and eat, or what food options are available. Mental health and stress can also affect appetite.
Let’s call a spade a spade: eating is business. Preparing food requires physical and mental work, in addition to time and money. Even the discovery process what Eating can feel like an insurmountable obstacle when you have a million other things in mind. And it is before you take into account the culture of nutrition, which makes meal times even more burdensome and stressful by equating weight loss with health, and health with moral virtue. (If your goal is just to lose weight, time and frequency of meals involve a completely different kind of math.)
There is a lot of pressure to eat the “right” number and type of meals i we cook them all ourselves, using fresh, whole ingredients. On a budget. While you work and take care of your loved ones. It’s easier said than done.
Sometimes it’s better to … don’t do all that, just reach for a snack. While the number of people eating three meals a day has dropped in the last few decades, people are eating more total calories; now we just get more of those calories from snacks.
In some countries, it is relatively easy to get nutritious food – and this is the key – that you don’t have to cook for yourself. Local food in Mexico and Ghana, for example, makes it easy to walk down the road and get a cheap, fully prepared (and delicious) meal made from local proteins and products, or a bundle of fresh local fruit. Not so in many places in the US.
However, the idea that you should cook all your meals at home is a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, only families who had space for a home kitchen and means of employment helped eat home-made food on a daily basis. In the cities, working class people ate cooked food from small restaurants and street vendors. Shared eating is also a cherished tradition in many cultures, both in the United States and around the world.
Three meals a day is not a magic number; it’s just a yardstick that helps ensure you eat consistently enough – and modern life in this country makes it extremely difficult. So what can you do about it?
3 tips for 3 meals
First of all: accept that the struggle to cook three meals at home every day is not a personal shortcoming. But you don’t necessarily have to wait for big changes across society to alleviate some of your frustrations. Here are some tips that have helped me, and could help you as well.
Get back to basics
As you already know, three meals a day is not the golden rule. But if you are struggling to eat regular meals at all, Miluk told me that she usually advises her clients to give preference to three meals a day.
“When your body doesn’t believe food will be available all the time, it goes into a fight or flight regime,” she explained. A daily meal schedule provides a “solid foundation” that allows you to rebuild confidence in your body and regulate your appetite.
That doesn’t mean it will be smooth. I used to accidentally skip lunch or postpone dinner for too long, and that didn’t just go away. But having a clear goal in mind was incredibly helpful. Every time I was able to successfully have breakfast, lunch and dinner, I learned what it was like to enjoy life with constant energy instead of brain and intoxication.
I’ve been trying for years a lot different ways to outsmart and insert my three meals. But I can’t really say that I succeeded until I finally gave up trying to always eat “real” food, in the “right” way. Instead, I focused on what was realistic and convenient for me: how do I get the nutrients I need, taking into account all the obstacles in my life?
By removing any judgment of what your three meals consist of, you are more likely to actually eat them. For me, that meant adding meal subscriptions and meal shakes to my daily routine. For others, it can mean grocery delivery, helping prepare meals from your community, canned or prepared food, food trucks, or cheap simple products (like bananas).
Focusing not only on health, but also on lightness – even when it meant eating things I thought I “shouldn’t” eat – changed everything for me. Every day I am reminded that I am worth all the money and effort it takes to make a living. I forgive myself for living in a culture and era that does not facilitate the nutrition of my body, and I pledge to take care of myself in all the ways I have to in spite of that.
Check with you
Once you’ve calmed down by eating three meals a day, according to Miluk, you can focus on adjusting your own body’s signals and using the hunger and satiety scale to maintain a diet schedule that suits you best. This means taking into account your food preferences, health needs and values, schedules and affordability. A professional dietitian can help guide you on this journey, but keep in mind that there is no single recipe for everything when and what to eat.
“The key to finding out what the optimal meal date is for yourself is to turn off the world around you and become honest with yourself,” Miluk said.
Her recommendation to understand this is to ask yourself the following questions:
- How do I feel when I have breakfast, lunch and dinner regularly in relation to skipping meals?
- Do meals and / or snacks keep me going until my next meal or snack?
- When I spend a long time without a major meal or snack, do I notice changes in my focus, energy, or mood?
- Do I pay attention to the signs from my body when I am hungry and when I am full?
- Are there any patterns of my appetite that stand out? Does my appetite remain stable during the day or do I find that I eat more at certain times of the day?
For me, three meals a day has proven to be the most feasible way to meet my daily needs while doing work from 9 to 5. Considering how often I get hungry and how much I like to eat in one breath, that makes sense. You may decide that living your best life means eating two huge meals like farmers used to do or snacking from morning till night. Some may consider themselves ‘pashas’ and there is nothing in that, Miluk assured me.
“That’s why trusting and adjusting to your own body is more important than any dietary rule or health manual,” she said. “A scientific study might say that eating 12 times a day is best for longevity, but when does that really apply?”
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any questions you may have about your health condition or health goals.