In my first year working as a dietitian, a wise doctor asked me, “Why is it that we have to eat three meals a day … why not one, why not six?”
I was embarrassed that I had no real answer for him. After all, I had always eaten three meals a day, and my nutrition training was based around three meals a day.
“Snacks” were acceptable, but only and always three meals.
Looking back in history, it appears that we evolved to three meals a day because that is what worked best with the traditional American work schedule.
Breakfast was the meal that got us up and going and powered us through a long morning. To justify the lunch break in most work settings, it was not acceptable to graze on food throughout the day, and eight hours was a long time to go without nourishment.
Finally, the evening meal prevented hunger through the night and was valued as family bonding time.
There are some studies advocating five or six “small meals” as beneficial for weight loss and weight maintenance. But what is a small meal? Is it different from a snack? If you normally eat 600 calories per meal in three meals and change to six 400 calorie meals, will the result be weight loss or gain?
Recently, studies have suggested an advantage to intermittent fasting. This pattern of eating may involve a very low calorie intake on two to four days each week while eating without restriction the remainder of the week.
Another option for intermittent fasting requires fasting for 12 to 20 hours each day and limiting eating to a four- to eight-hour span of time. However, if going for a long time between meals causes one to gorge when they do eat, will the results be positive?
Throughout the years, I have worked with people from a variety of cultures and lifestyles.
Each individual already found a meal structure worked for them, and my insistence on the importance of three meals a day was neither effective nor necessary. It was more useful for me to work within their current meal model and encourage appropriate changes.
Ultimately, they were able to achieve their health goals without embracing the three squares concept.
The traditional family structure is evolving. Some work schedules and settings are becoming more flexible. As a result, our eating patterns are changing. Provided these patterns fit into a healthy lifestyle, account for any needs related to health issues and allow for good nutrition, it does not seem to matter that there are not three square meals each day.
And so, wise doctor, I finally have the answer. Thank you for asking.
Carole Mabry is a Registered Dietitian with Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.