Which is better – three square meals or snacks throughout day?

Cathryn Arndt

Three square meals or 5 small ones…which is better?

There are many different diets available out there, but one question comes up consistently: Which is healthier – three square meals a day or five small ones? Which one is more likely to promote health?

It is a question that many people in the nutrition realm have tossed back and forth, and the answer, honestly, depends on a person’s individual health needs in addition to their overall health goals.

Both may be appropriate, but one might be better than the other for different people, based on their digestion, blood sugar control and weight loss/gain goals.

Five to six small meals a day (breakfast, lunch and dinner, with snacks in-between each meal) can have benefits for several types of people: those with digestive issues or heartburn, pregnant or nursing mothers, the elderly or those with a decreased appetite, kids, diabetics on medication and people with increased caloric needs due to health problems like COPD or cancer.

The benefits for the above-mentioned are fairly simple: the small, frequent meals decrease the immediate digestive load on a person’s system. For a person with COPD who has difficulty breathing, or a pregnant mom who has less room in her expanding belly, smaller meals are simply more manageable and comfortable.

Small meals also enable a person to sneak in more calories if they need to.

Diabetics or people with hypoglycemia can also benefit from more frequent eating since their blood sugar is not properly regulated. The issue of blood sugar is also related to why snacks have been touted as friendly to weight loss.

Erratic blood sugar can leave a person “hangry” (hungry plus angry) and vulnerable to overeating. Eating frequently keeps you from feeling crazy hungry… or so goes the thinking.

The idea of and perhaps the “need” for snacks may also have been popularized by our own food culture.

If you think about it, less developed cultures as well as the centuries of cultures before us didn’t have “snacks.” I am not even speaking of the “primal” societies/cultures that the paleo movement refers to. I am talking about established people groups and cultures who have lasted over the course of time.

While I am not suggesting that the scarcity of food or the difficulty obtaining it (which has been a reality for many cultures) is a desirable thing, I am suggesting that the majority of humans have been able to thrive on less than five small meals a day.

While there are some who may benefit from small, frequent meals, there are others who simply won’t. For those who really enjoy “volume eating,” frequent snacking and small portion sizes may be rather unrealistic. Also, for those who tend to struggle with making wise food choices and for whom certain foods can trigger overeating, snacking can present too many tempting opportunities.

There is no shame in admitting you might be one of those people. As a foodie myself, I have to admit that my love for cooking and trying new foods can lead to overeating if I allow myself too frequent eating opportunities!

Despite other schools of thought, the three-a-day approach to meals may actually prove beneficial to those who aim at weight loss. Blood sugar has a chance to stabilize, stomachs have a chance to feel full and learn what being “satisfied” really means. People also learn which specific foods keep them satisfied longer.

This method also makes it easier for the body to dip into personal stored body fats when a person isn’t eating all the time, which is certainly helpful for weight loss! In the long run, three reasonable meals can help prevent overeating and aid in weight loss. The trick also comes down to WHAT your meals are made of.

I should clarify that when I say “three meals a day,” I am not saying three feasts a day or three gorge sessions. The three meals are satisfying, not gluttonous. There is a difference!

One should feel reasonably full but not stuffed or uncomfortable. You know it is enough when you start getting hungry (but not famished) around when it is time to eat again.

Because each larger meal provides enough satisfaction for several hours, people are liberated to not worry about food (what it will be or how they will store it … a real problem for people in certain jobs). While the potential to overeat is still there (just as it is when eating snacks), it can easily be managed by smart food choices and learning what satisfied feels like.

It’s vital to remember that, regardless of what eating method works best for you, everyone should have a time at which they stop eating. While that sounds obvious, it’s actually not for many people. It’s far too easy to eat your way well into the later evening hours at a time when your body is designed to wind down and begin its restorative functions.

Digestively, your body was not intended to handle much food at night (especially the type of late-night foods we tend to give it: ice cream, cookies, alcoholic beverages etc).

Your liver, in particular, is supposed to do a majority of its important work at night and when you clog it up with unnecessary foods, well, it creates problems. If the liver, with all of its amazing abilities to detox, manage blood sugars and cholesterol, is impaired, systemic inflammation results.

If you are wondering why those pesky pounds continue to pile up, it could be because you eat late into the evening and not because of your total calorie intake. It’s a thought to consider regardless of if you feel best eating smaller, more frequent meals or fewer larger ones.

Make sure you “close the kitchen” at a reasonable hour ( I normally suggest 7 to 8 p.m. at the latest).

I don’t have the answer for YOU specifically as to whether small, frequent meals or fewer larger meals will work best for you; however, I challenge you to find it for yourself. Consider your health needs and health goals. You may find that it changes from time to time and that is 100 percent OK.

If you are a diabetic who has difficulty managing your blood sugar, then it is worth adding or readjusting the snacks in your day. If you are struggling to lose weight, then perhaps you might look at if you are over-snacking.

Whatever your style of eating turns out to be, I always recommend two basic principles: Begin with water and start each meal with veggies.

Fellow Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Ilana Mulstein says it well in her trademarked slogan: “Water first, veggies most!” If you can drink two cups of water 30 minutes prior to eating (or when you feel the hunger urge coming on) and then make at least two of your meals mostly veggies, you will likely find improvements in your health that leave you nourished and satisfied.

– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She lives in the McDowell Creek area with her family and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her at her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com.