How Often Should You Eat For Weight loss?

I have been coaching for a decade and am about to answer a hot topic question.  

“How many meals should I eat while trying to lose weight?” 

By the end of this article, you will know the answer and be able to plan your meals for the week. 

Weight Loss and Numbers

Calories matter. 

No matter how magical a diet claims to be, it boils down to a reduction in calories, A.K.A a calorie deficit

When someone reduces their calories, technically, they will be eating less. That’s why there are so many ideas on the “optimal” number of meals to consume while losing weight. 

One school of thought focuses heavily on metabolism and the thermic effect of foods.   

Thermic Effect of Foods: Is the increase in metabolic rate (the rate at which your body burns calories) after eating food.  

T.E.F accounts for 10% of daily calories burnt.  

Your body needs to use energy to digest the food you consume. 

Take a moment and look at the Thermic Effect Of Macronutrients

Protein4 calories per gramT.E.F 20-30%
Carbohydrates4 calories per gramT.E.F 5-15%
Fat9 Calories per gram T.E.F 0-5%

Protein has a thermic effect of 20-30%, which is why it is an essential nutrient in your diet to lose or maintain weight.  

The body requires the most energy to digest protein properly. That’s why it can help someone remain full in a calorie deficit.  

Carbohydrates can have a thermic effect of 5-15%, depending on their source. A complex carbohydrate high in fiber will take longer to digest, increasing its thermic effect.  

Fats have the lowest thermic effect at 0-5%, and they require the least energy to digest. 

Now that you know a little more about the thermic effect of food, I will remind you that having a balanced diet is essential. Protein has a higher thermic effect; however, it does not mean you should only eat protein.   

All of the macronutrients serve a purpose, and having a balanced diet makes it easier to adhere to a nutrition plan in the long run. Not to mention the reduction in all-cause mortality when you eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. 😉

Eat Six Small Meals

In 2007 the book “Eat All Day Diet: Eat 6 Meals A Day And Lose Weight Fast” was published and claimed that eating three moderate-sized meals and three nutrient-filled snacks per day would cause you to lose weight “fast” by boosting your metabolism.

The book’s author was late to the party because bodybuilders have been doing this for years to ensure they fuel appropriately to make all the gainZzZz. 

Remember when you learned about the Thermic Effect of Foods a few paragraphs ago?  

Thermic Effect of Foods: Is the increase in metabolic rate (the rate at which your body burns calories) after eating food.  

In theory, by frequently eating throughout the day, your metabolism should increase due to the thermic effect of foods.  

Ahhh, I wish it were true; alas, that’s not how the human body works. 

There is no difference in T.E.F if you have larger infrequent meals vs. frequently smaller meals throughout the day if calories are matched. 

A review of multiple studies found “that any effects of meal pattern on the regulation of body weight are likely to be mediated through effects on the food intake side of the energy balance equation.”

In other words, so long as calories are matched, the thermic effect of foods does not boost your metabolism to lose weight faster.  

A calorie deficit is how someone loses weight.  

That’s why intermittent fasting works well for some people. 

So, Fasting Is The Answer? 

Fasting is viable for folks who do not enjoy breakfast and eat balanced meals throughout the day.   

This next section is from one of my more popular articles, “Should You Fast?”

Fasting is just another method for reducing calories and if your goal is weight loss, entering a calorie deficit and maintaining it is crucial. 

A recent randomized study, “Calorie Restriction with or without Time-Restricted Eating in Weight Loss,” randomly assigned 139 patients with obesity to time-restricted eating with calorie restriction or daily calorie restriction alone. At the end of one year, they concluded: “a regimen of time-restricted eating was not more beneficial with regard to reduction in body weight, body fat, or metabolic risk factors than daily calorie restriction.” 

In other words, your ability to adhere to a caloric deficit is KEY, and it doesn’t matter if you are fasting or not fasting. It just happens to be more challenging for someone to stick with restricted eating windows vs. finding balance and tracking calories.

Fasting isn’t magical. 

Eating six meals a day isn’t logical. 

And a calorie deficit is how someone can lose weight

Now, let’s chat about what works better than fad dieting trends. 

Eat A Meal Every 4-6 Hours 

Let’s start by defining the word meal. 

According to Oxford Languages, a meal is any of the regular occasions in a day when a reasonably large amount of food is eaten, such as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

Eating a meal makes you more likely to recognize you are getting full and stop eating if you have a balanced plate.  

Most people don’t stop eating once the meal is over. It’s somewhat considered normal to snack throughout the day, even if you aren’t hungry. 

The things you snack on are less nutrient-dense, highly palatable, and easy to overconsume.   

Snacks are a very sneaky, not so sneaky, way of not maintaining a calorie deficit. 

Snacks aren’t bad! I love a good snack; however, if someone was to eat a balanced plate, they might not snack because they aren’t truly hungry. 

You should be full until about 30 minutes before your next meal.   

If you find you’re hungry one to two hours after your meal, chances are the meal was unbalanced or too small. So, it makes total sense to be hungry!  

Or, there is the off chance that you aren’t hungry–you just had a rough day at work and are stressed.  

Many of my clients struggle with noticing the difference between hunger, boredom, exhaustion, and emotions. That’s why I wrote this article. 

To keep things simple, focus on using the guideline of eating a meal every 4-6 hours. This will put you at three meals a day, and maybe three meals and one snack for others. 

Wait, No Snacks? 

Okay okay okay…I mentioned that snacks weren’t great if you were trying to lose weight. Before you throw your laptop out the window, let me explain myself—no need to be dramatic.   

For argument’s sake, let’s call anything you put in your mouth between meals a snack. 

When you grab a few skittles off your coworker’s desk.

When you grab a few handfuls of nuts from the closet because it’s “health food.”

When you eat your kid’s leftovers while cleaning up.

Are any of these foods bad? No, not in the slightest; however, they all contain calories, and doing this throughout the day can add up. 

Also, many of these snacks are unplanned, and the person snacking doesn’t adjust their portion sizes during their next meal. 

Chris, then why did you bother mentioning snacking at all?

I mentioned snacking because sometimes your schedule will require you to wait longer than six hours for a meal. When this happens, it is easy to overeat at the next meal, especially if you are in a calorie deficit. 

Amazingly, you can look at your schedule and plan to have your snacks, which means they are called “deliberate snacks.” 

Deliberate Snacks

A deliberate snack is pre-planned when you know it will be longer than six hours before your next meal.  

Ideally, your snack will be a combination of any two of the following: 

  • Protein
  • Carbohydrate 
  • Vegetables 
  • Fat

Here are a few examples that my clients love to use: 

  • Greek Yogurt with blueberries. 
  • String cheese with turkey deli meat.
  • A handful of almonds with an apple. 
  • A protein shake. 

These combinations are nutrient-dense, so you are more likely to recognize when you are getting full. People who use deliberate snacks will also adjust portion sizes at their next meal.  

For instance, if you have a protein shake 45 minutes before a meal, you might not need to eat as much, which is normal!   

Chris, I’m already doing this, and I’m always hungry. 

Keep reading, reader! 

But I’m Hungry All The Time

It is normal to be hungry when you are trying to lose weight.

You will be eating slightly less than usual.

Many of my clients find that they are still “hungry” throughout the day but are eating balanced meals with enough protein, carbs, fat, & fiber. When we spend time trying to look at why they are hungry, it usually happens when:

😴 They are exhausted and slept poorly the night before.

🤬 They had a stressful day at work.

🫤 They are bored and are avoiding a task.

We can identify it as a craving and not hunger because it builds and fades over time and isn’t a hollow feeling in their stomach; they aren’t light-headed and don’t feel shaky.

Your Hunger Check List: 

  1. The feeling starts in your stomach 
  2. The feeling increases over time
  3. You’re hungry for a meal

The best question to ask yourself is, “am I hungry for a meal?” 

Does a piece of fruit sound good right about now? 

Does a plate of tacos with black beans, rice, and some salsa sound good? 

If you answered yes to either of these, you are hungry.   

Now, if the answer is no, chances are you have a craving, and it will pass. I don’t recommend sitting and staring at the cookies while you attempt to let the urge pass by. 

Your Craving Check List: 

  1. The feel isn’t in the stomach 
  2. The feeling comes and goes in a wave
  3. You want a “treat.” 

I don’t like to call specific foods “treats” because, to be honest, you are a grown adult and can choose to have whatever type of food you want. 

Cake is terrific, and I don’t tell my clients they can’t enjoy dessert. But it becomes easier to overindulge because they are grabbing cake as a snack and aren’t hungry.

If someone’s goal is weight loss, adding extra calories from highly palatable foods can make it harder to notice when you are full, specifically when using food as a coping mechanism.

The cake isn’t the problem; it’s the use of cake for frequent emotional regulation, boredom, or to help you stay awake.

When I work with clients, we focus on identifying cravings and finding when they start. Together we develop a game plan and learn a little more about why behind the choices someone makes.

Don’t Go Cold Turkey

Don’t just throw out all of your snacks. That isn’t cool.  

A good rule of thumb is to practice saying yes fifty percent of the time and no the other fifty percent. 

Sometimes you’ll say yes to the cake because it’s your anniversary, and you want to share some with your loved one. Other times you will say no, like when it’s 10 pm, and you are exhausted. Instead, you will read a book in bed and fall asleep because you are taking your kids on a morning hike, which is of value to you. 

As you practice, you will find that the percentages shift around. 


The truth is that the daily number of meals depends on your lifestyle and what works best for you.

Is there one optimal number of meals per day? Not so long as calories are in alignment with your particular goal.

I will say that aiming to eat a meal every 4-6 hours makes it easier not to snack as often.  

This can be 3 or 4 meals a day with one deliberate snack. 

You will get lean if you’re snacking less and eating balanced meals.  

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