As an individual with your own body type, nutritional needs, and eating habits, your eating schedule may look entirely different than that of a friend or coworker. Some people thrive off a filling breakfast, while others may eat their first substantial meal closer to lunchtime. This is a concept that we at IIN refer to as bio-individuality, and when it comes to nutrition, it means that the food choices and mealtimes that work for you and your health goals may not be beneficial for someone else.
How Often Should You Eat?
As a general guideline, dietitians and nutritionists recommend eating three spaced-out meals throughout the day and one to three snacks to hold you over in between. By eating smaller, more frequent meals, you are less likely to feel extreme hunger, preventing you from overeating at your next meal or snacking on processed foods that give you a quick boost of energy. A 2015 study found that those who ate larger, less frequent meals were likely to have a higher BMI (Body Mass Index) than those who ate more regularly throughout the day.
Small meals and snacking can boost your metabolic rate, promote weight loss, and increase your energy level and mood, but these benefits are maximized when the nutritional quality of those smaller meals is high. If you’re snacking on processed foods and chips, for example, you may not reap the same benefits as if you were focusing on a diet full of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, protein, and healthy fats.
Small, healthy snacks between meals can curb feelings of hunger until the next meal and allow you to make sensible food choices for your meals, since you won’t be ravenous come mealtime. But it’s encouraged that small snacks stay small: it’s very easy to underestimate how many calories food has and end up eating more than you originally planned.
Meal sizes and frequency
Each day of eating can look a bit different and will depend on the state of your health, whether you’ve just completed a strenuous workout or you’re fighting a cold. On days when you’re more physically active, you may find that you crave larger, more nutrient-dense meals – like a veggie-packed omelet or a hearty bean stew. On days you’re taking a break from physical activity or engaging in restorative activities, such as yoga or stretching, you may tailor your meals to support a more relaxed state. Either way, listening to your body as well as speaking with a nutritionist or dietitian can help you find a healthy balance in your eating schedule, including which foods will best support your body each day.
A nutritionist or dietitian will typically consider:
- Sex – People metabolize food in the body differently due to height, weight proportion, and hormonal differences. Men tend to have more muscle mass than women, which means they need a higher calorie intake. This means men usually benefit from eating larger, more consistent meals throughout the day.
- Age – Older adults tend to be more sedentary, meaning they do not burn calories as quickly. This means lighter meals and consistent snacking may be best for them. Aging also affects hormone levels, which may factor into how much and how often someone is eating.
- Activity level – Does your job require a lot of moving around? Are you regularly engaging in physical activity? If so, chances are you will find yourself needing more fuel and larger portion sizes throughout the day.
Skipping meals can slow your metabolic rate and, in extreme circumstances, may cause your body to go into starvation mode. To prevent this, many people benefit from staying fueled with small, nutrient-dense snacks throughout the day, such as apple slices dipped in almond butter, a yogurt with mixed berries and granola, or carrots with hummus.
When you space out your meals and allow yourself to enjoy multiple nutritious snacks and meals, you are also giving yourself ample time and opportunity to get the essential vitamins and minerals your body needs! Some of the most important ones include iron, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A, C, and D.
Eating whenever you’re hungry
That rumble in your stomach may not necessarily be your body’s signal to eat another meal. Remember to check in with yourself before grabbing a snack and consider why you may be feeling hungry (especially if you just finished a big meal an hour ago!). Did you get enough sleep last night? Are you drinking enough water? Often, your body will send hunger cues to let you know that something needs extra attention.
Sometimes, a craving may even be an emotional reaction to unmet needs. Try to “feed yourself” with what we call primary food, the things found off your plate that nourish you. This could look like spending quality time with a loved one, calling a friend to check in, or taking alone time to recharge.
The true feeling of hunger is a natural cue to let you know your blood sugar is low and you need fuel. While moderate hunger is normal, the pangs of hunger you feel when you go too long without eating can be detrimental to your health. Again, ignoring your hunger cues may cause your body to go into starvation mode.
It’s important to learn to pay attention to your unique hunger cues, giving you the opportunity to figure out which foods both satisfy your hunger and provide essential nutrients. When you learn how to effectively manage your hunger and satiety, you can better support healthy blood sugar balance with consumption of ample protein, fiber, and healthy fats. Stay prepared for great nourishment by keeping your fridge stocked with healthy snacks.
Learning to eat intuitively
You are the best judge of your body’s needs. A nutritionist, dietitian, or Health Coach can help you better tap into this intuition, supporting you as you make meaningful changes that enhance your overall health and helping you find an eating pattern that works best for you.
This could look like experimenting with your portion sizes to figure out if you’re feeding yourself enough (or too much), or trying new, healthy snacks that you can take with you if you often find yourself hungry while on the go. Don’t be afraid to make changes to your current routine – your health and individual needs will change day over day, and year over year. Honing your understanding of your dietary needs will go a long way in promoting long-term health!
At IIN, we emphasize that food is medicine – we can use food to promote optimal well-being! The IIN curriculum covers the importance of integrating a variety of food groups into your diet in whatever ways work best for you – bio-individuality is key. We also know that primary food is crucial for a long and healthy life. Download the Curriculum Guide today to learn more about our holistic approach to health and wellness.