Don't Skip Breakfast — Eating 3 Meals a Day May Lead to Healthier Food Choices

The age-old advice to eat "three square meals a day" may be right, according to new expert recommendations.

July 22, 2020
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Photo by: mikroman6/Getty Images

mikroman6/Getty Images

How often should you be eating? This age-old question was addressed by the dietary guidelines committee report that was released mid-July. Turns out, three meals is better than two, and we break down what that means for your health.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are revised every five years, and 2020 marks a new revision. Prior to the release, an extensive scientific review committee is charged with evaluating research on topics new and old and making recommendations for what the guidelines will include. This time, the committee weighed in on meal frequency and how often you should eat. Here’s what they suggest.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans don’t recommend a specific number of meals and snacks per day. Rather, they discuss eating patterns including a typical American eating pattern, vegetarian eating pattern and Mediterranean eating pattern. The idea is that everyone can eat a healthy diet even if they choose to eat different types of foods. The trick is to choose a variety of healthy foods from each food group including starches, low and nonfat dairy, lean meat, fruits, vegetables and healthy oils.

How Frequently Should You Be Eating?

Although the current guidelines talk about types of foods and how much to eat, how frequently you eat is also an important factor. The research shows that on average, Americans report 5.7 eating occasions per day with most frequent consumption at noon and in the evening.

In addition, research shows that 64% of the American population report eating three meals per day verses 28% of Americans who eat only two meals per day. Compared to those who ate two meals per day, those who ate three meals per day had a better quality diet.

And what about those late night snacks? Research found that 93% of Americans snack (2 to 3 snacks per day, on average). Late night eating tends to include alcohol, added sugar, sodium and saturated fats. These are the nutrients and foods that should be consumed in moderation.

And what about something like intermittent fasting that limits the time meals are consumed? This can mean that fewer nutrients can be consumed in that smaller time frame. However, this diet is not directly addressed by the committee.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the committee really didn’t have sufficient evidence to back up how frequently meals should be consumed. They did conclude that you can eat a healthy diet by having a variety of meal frequencies which can depend on cultural practices. Limiting snacks, especially evening snacks, can help reduce several nutrients that Americans do get too much of (added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium). Meal frequency is a topic never before discussed in the final version of the dietary guidelines, so we can see if they actually make it into the official guidelines.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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