Common advice given to women looking to get lean and toned is to eat frequent meals -- a small meal every two to three hours seems to be the standard advice. As great as it might be to be able to do this, who really has time to eat so frequently? With work, family commitments and the host of other tasks you have to do every day, eating so often isn't easy. The good news is that you don't have to -- three meals a day works just as well.
Preparing and cooking food takes time. Even a small snack can take five minutes to make, and a larger meal may require a good 20 to 30 minutes. Over the course of a week or month, all this time adds up. Eating bigger meals just three times a day will save you hours in the long-run. Less time making meals gives you more time for social and family commitments.
Meal frequency is irrelevant when it comes to weight loss and body composition, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition. To work out your calorie intake, multiply your weight in pounds by 4.35 and your height in inches by 4.7. Add these figures and then add 655. Multiply your age in years by 4.7 and take this from your first figure. This is your basal metabolic rate or BMR -- the number of calories you'd burn each day lying in bed. Factor in activity levels by multiplying your BMR by 1.2 if you're sedentary, 1.375 if you're lightly active, 1.55 for a moderately active lifestyle, 1.725 or 1.9 if you're very or extra active. This is your calorie-maintenance intake -- you need to eat slightly below this to lose weight. Split your intake over three meals and you're good to go.
Benefits Over One Meal
If meal frequency doesn't matter, you might be thinking you could just cut down to eating once a day and make it even easier. This might not be the best approach though. Researchers at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Maryland found that people eating just one meal a day could only sustain this for a short period and had increases in blood pressure and blood cholesterol compared to those eating three meals.
Deciding you're going to eat three meals every day without fail means you're far more likely to stick to your plan. You won't indulge in calorie-dense between-meal snacks or skip meals. Women who skip meals have much less weight-loss success than those who stick to a regular eating pattern, according to the Idea Health and Fitness Association. Stick to the traditional breakfast, lunch and dinner schedule, spacing each meal around four to six hours apart.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of eating the same boring meals day after day, so keep your diet varied and change your meals regularly to help you stick to the plan. Breakfast could be poached eggs with a slice of ham on whole-grain toast, a veggie omelet or low-fat Greek yogurt with almonds and mixed berries. For lunch, go for a salad with as many different vegetables as you like, accompanied by a protein source like cold roast turkey, canned salmon or cottage cheese, plus a small handful of whole-wheat pasta or kidney beans. Alternatively, have a whole-grain wrap with a protein and veggie filling. Base your dinner around protein too, with a big serving of vegetables and a slightly smaller one of carbs. A lean rump steak with green beans and sweet potato, or a chicken stir-fry with peppers, carrot, corn and a small serving of brown rice would be ideal.
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Meal Frequency
- BMI Calculator: BMR Formula
- BMI Calculator: Harris Benedict Equation
- Agricultural Research Service: Researchers Look at How Frequency of Meals May Affect Health
- Idea Health and Fitness Association: Food Journals Can Help Women Lose Weight
Mike Samuels started writing for his own fitness website and local publications in 2008. He graduated from Peter Symonds College in the UK with A Levels in law, business and sports science, and is a fully qualified personal trainer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist with accreditations from Premier Global International.