How often you eat throughout the day may make just as much difference as what you're eating, though.
As with all things related to nutrition, there are several schools of thought on this. Some believe you should graze on small meals throughout the day; others hold tight to three square meals with no snacks in between; and others still swear by intermittent fasting, in which you seriously limit your calorie intake on a semi-regular basis.
Ayurvedic insight into how many meals a day to eat
Kim Rossi, an Ayurveda expert at Art of Living Retreat Center in North Carolina, spent a long time as a serious athlete, eating six small meals a day to turn her body into a "fat burning machine." In some studies, this system has been found to reduce hunger and boost metabolism and mood. "When I followed this very strict routine of calories and protein and fat and eating at certain times of the day, was I lean and mean? Sure," says Rossi. "But my mood was never consistent." She also noted that when she didn't follow the six meals a day routine, she often gained weight very quickly.
When she started studying Ayurveda in her late 20s, she met John Douillard, DC, who told her that the six meals a day routine was a myth. Instead, he put forth, eating three meals a day—timed correctly, and consisting of high quality, whole foods—is the perfect recipe for stabilizing mood and weight. "I argued with him," says Rossi, "and he basically said, 'Just try it.'"
Rossi says that at first she overate at each meal because she anticipated being hungry later, but that it didn't take long to find a rhythm that worked for her. "It became my lifestyle," she says.
In an Ayurvedic practice, for which the concept of the digestive fire is huge, meal timing is crucial. You want to keep the fire steadily stoked throughout the day, without letting it go out from too little fuel or by overwhelming it with too much. Rossi says that breakfast should be eaten between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., lunch—which should be the main meal of the day and should definitely not happen at your desk or in the car—happens between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Dinner takes place around 6 p.m.—7 p.m. at the latest—and should be similar in size or smaller than lunch.
"If you must snack," says Rossi, "fruit is recommended in Ayurveda to be eaten alone." She says she keeps an organic apple at her desk at all times in case the need to snack arises.
A registered dietitian's thoughts on the optimal number of meals
Samantha Rigoli, a registered dietician and nutrition consultant, says that there are challenges to any strict routine, and that making it as easy as possible to eat healthy foods is key. "It's hard enough to make one good choice a day let alone six," she says. So while sticking to three meals could work for some people, Rigoli would add wider latitude for healthy snacks like nuts, fruit, or hummus and crackers. "Sometimes I feel like I do need a snack and it takes the edge off so then I can make healthier choices at dinner," she says.
Rigoli also notes that some people may need to supplement larger meals with smaller snacks to balance their blood sugar. Her approach is to match the schedule with lifestyle. "Some people can't eat dinner until 8 p.m.," she says, speaking for the chronically busy everywhere. "Noon to 8 p.m. is a really long time to wait, your blood sugar is going to drop, and you're going into dinner ravenous and then you just feel like you have to eat until you feel normal again and it's hard to stop." Eating when you feel hungry, but not ravenous, is ideal.
Rigoli is not a fan of intermittent fasting, saying that while different strategies work for different bodies and metabolisms, she wouldn't recommend it for weight loss or weight control. "I don't think it's a great idea, to be honest," she says. "I just think it's too restrictive and I don't think there's any good evidence that it's beneficial to your body." She does note that there is some evidence that it can be helpful for some people (biohackers like Well+Good Council member Robin Berzin, MD, swear by it), but regular fasting would be difficult to incorporate into most busy schedules in a healthy way.
Fasting is an essential part of Ayurvedic practice, but as Rossi explains, it's most often experienced as a seasonal cleanse, usually done twice a year, that is gentle and respectful of the body. The cleanse program at Art of Living, for example, includes consultations with an Ayurvedic doctor, yoga, meditation, and spa treatments specially designed to work together. According to Rossi, it's more of an intense reset than a quick fix or a lifehack. "One needs to be pretty strong to come into a cleanse. It nurtures your relationship with food, with self, with your body. It also is very beautiful for the mind." It's just an everyday practice, she says.
Originally published December 27, 2019. Updated May 1, 2020.
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