Breaking The Tyranny of Three Meals a Day

Posted on May 18, 2019
Filed Under: health

I'm a terrible eater. I generally eat too much, only to be partially saved by very good gym habits.

I've been actively trying to cut back my caloric intake. While counting calories get a bad rap, the fact remains that most people in The First World consume far too many calories daily. Left to my impulses, I'll gobble up 4,000 calories on a day where I didn't even feel like I over-ate – on a "bad nutrition day, I might take in 6,000.

One of the ways I do this is through what I call “preemptive eating.” I eat for the future – I'll eat something "because I might be hungry later," or I'll eat more at a sitting because I need to “make a meal” out of whatever I've got.

In general, we “fear the gap” between meals. When we're eating Meal A, we're subconciously contemplating the gap until Meal B, and we're eating to make sure we don't get hungry during that gap.

But there's no rule that you need to eat three meals a day. And there's no rule that says you need to eat a full meal at every sitting. We do this because (1) society has grown around this framework, and (2) we try to “solve” hunger by eating enough that we won't be hungry again for a while.

But you can't solve personal hunger. You can only delay it.

It doesn't matter how much you eat, you're going to get hungry again, it just might be sooner or later, depending on how food is in your stomach at the moment.

The best we can do with hunger is kick the can down the road a little bit. We can solve hunger for now, but it's always going to come back.

Lately, what I've been doing is concentrating on solving hunger in the moment, not the future. When I get hungry, I eat the smallest thing I can eat to not be hungry in that moment. In these moments, I tell myself: “You can have something else later.”

And this is the abundance of the time we live in. There's always food around. I can always have something else. Whatever I'm eating at the moment isn't the last meal I'm ever going to eat.

So I try to solve my hunger in that moment, even so far having a goal of being hungry later.

Aside from the fact that I'm consuming less calories overall, there are several other benefits:

  1. I don't suffer through extended hunger, waiting for a mealtime. If I'm hungry, I eat. I just eat small.
  2. I'm willing tolerate hunger longer. If I know I can eat something when I'm hungry, I'll often put it off because I'm busy, whereas if I couldn't have something until a mealtime, I'll think about being hungry more because I know I can't resolve it.
  3. I get to eat a wider variety of food. If you eat small portions, you can eat more things. There are some amazing appetizers at restaurants that make great little meals.
  4. I get to eat more often. I like eating, and when I get hungry, sometimes it's nice because I know I can have something to eat. I often eat out of boredom and anxiety, so this gives me more moments in which I can eat. For better or worse, this makes me feel better.
  5. When I do eat a full meal, I tend to eat far less, just because I've gotten used to less food in a single sitting, and I know can eat more later anyway.
  6. I move away from the perfectionism and rigidity that plagues most diet attempts. I eat when I need to eat – that might be three times a day, or maybe seven times a day. I do what works, not some plan that I need to stick to and feel guilty about if I deviate from it – and often then want to abandon because if I can't do it 100%, I don't want to do it at all.
  7. Since I don't let my hunger get too “deep,” I'm less often in a state where I'm tempted to gorge myself.
  8. I eat more quickly. I don't have to interupt my day. I can down a snack in less than a minute and keep doing whatever.

That last one has another interesting secondary effect – I think about food less, because you tend to think about things you can't have. And, when you eat three large meals a day, the set times and the amount of food combine to make you anticipate it. When a meal is an “event,” that causes problems for me.

When you eat at random times, and eat small amounts, food shuffles backwards in your list of priorities. It occupies less mental space in your head during the day. Occasionally, I even get annoyed that I have to stop and eat something.

One of the best books I ever read on food and diet was The Economist's Diet. In it, they cite calorie abundance as the biggest problem stalking our waistlines, and in a chapter subtitled “Busting the Myth of Three Square Meals a Day” they say this:

[...] we have discovered that a person needs only one square meal, supplemented by two lighter meals, to stay satiated and helpful.

(Sidenote: the origins of the term “square meal” are interesting.)

Sometimes I'll just eat six “snacks” throughout the day. A "snack" in this case would be a combination of food of perhaps 400 calories or less. Sometimes I'll have 3-4 of these and then come home to a full meal, or Annie and I will go out to eat. Sometimes I'll end the day and realize I never ate what someone would consider a “square meal.”

Note that The Economist's Diet actually recommends against the “multiple meals a day” theory as increasing temptation. Also, contrary to popular belief, there's actually no scientific proof that it has any benefit.

But, all nutrition and fitness is contextual. If something sounds dumb, but it works, then it's not dumb. What work is what works for you, and this seems to work for me.