How Often Should You Eat?

Avoid Starvation Mode Myths to Keep Your Diet on Track

Breakfast with pancakes and hot chocolate
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If you read headlines about healthy eating or weight loss, you've probably noticed that many popular diet plans include periods of fasting. But others encourage you to eat every few hours to avoid starvation mode. So how often should you eat? And if weight loss is your goal, what happens if you are eating less but gaining weight?

To sort through the headlines, it's smart to turn to health and medical experts. Dr. Joel Fuhrman is a six-time New York Times best-selling author and President of the Nutritional Research Foundation. His beliefs about how often you should eat to lose weight are consistent with what researchers and scientists have known about metabolism for years. And what some dieters get wrong.

Does Not Eating Make You Fat?

Many dieters are "grazers." That means that they eat every few two to three hours. There are several theories about why grazing might work for weight loss.

Some dieters believe that eating often helps them to avoid severe hunger and binge eating that may result if they get too hungry. Others believe that eating often helps to keep their metabolism from dropping—which can happen if hunger causes them to move less. And other believe that if they don't eat frequently, their body goes into starvation mode.

When dieters talk about starvation mode, they are usually referring to the effect that infrequent eating can have on your metabolism. The commonly held belief is that if you don't eat every three hours or if you skip a meal—like breakfast—your metabolism immediately slows to preserve energy and prepare for starvation. As a result, weight loss grinds to a halt and weight gain can occur.

Some science-savvy dieters might also confuse starvation mode with what researchers call "adaptive thermogenesis." Scientific studies have confirmed that people who have successfully lost weight have a slower metabolism than their same-weight counterparts who have never dieted. These people often (reasonably) complain that they are eating less but gaining weight. 

Researchers believe that the slower metabolism is an adaptation to eating fewer calories over an extended period of time. Adaptive thermogenesis makes it harder for people who have lost weight to maintain a healthy weight.

So why is the distinction between starvation mode and adaptive thermogenesis so important? Because even though the concept of adaptive thermogenesis has been validated in clinical studies, researchers don't necessarily blame infrequent eating or skipped meals (starvation mode) for the slower metabolism. So dieters shouldn't necessarily use the evidence-based concept of adaptive thermogenesis to justify eating more often.  

The Starvation Mode Myth

So should you eat often or scale back and eat less frequently? The answer can be a little bit tricky and much of it depends on your personal lifestyle. However, starvation mode should not be a concern.

Dr. Fuhrman explains that eating less can have an effect on your metabolism, but not in the way that we think. In fact, he thinks that the idea of starvation mode is "ridiculous." 

"Caloric restriction can have an effect on metabolic rate but on the rate at which you lose weight, not on whether or not you lose weight," he says. Fuhrman says emphatically that dieters will not gain weight by restricting calories. "If starvation mode was a real thing," he says, "then anorexics would be fat."

In short, Fuhrman says that dieters should never try to eat more to avoid starvation mode. Snacking frequently or increasing the number of meals you eat during the day doesn't work if you want to lose weight. "When people increase the number of eating occasions during the day, they increase body weight," says Fuhrman

How Often Should You Eat?

So what really matters if you want to lose weight? Fuhrman believes that the quality of your diet—not eating frequency—makes the difference. In his book, The End of Dieting, he offers a scientific explanation for why we want to eat all the time. 

He explains that what feels like hunger is often just our body's natural response to withdrawal from junk food. "People get uncomfortable, that's all it is." He says that weight loss happens when we increase the amount of healthy food we consume, not the frequency of eating episodes. Eating higher quality foods helps us to find an eating schedule that allows you to reach and maintain a healthy weight. 

The best way to determine how often you should eat is to evaluate your schedule and keep a food journal. Jot down notes about when you are most likely to have food cravings and when you are most likely to feel real hunger. Those are times to schedule meals and snacks.

You might also want to make note of times during the day when you experience energy dips. It is very likely that you are either dehydrated, hungry, or simply tired during those occasions. Examine your sleep schedule to make sure you are well rested, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, then finally plan your meals so that those energy dips are less likely to occur as a result of hunger.

Everyone's schedule is different. Don't worry if your eating schedule is different than what you see in magazines or on websites. What matters most is diet quality and overall health. Eat as often as you need to stay active and healthy. But choose nutritious foods that are naturally low in calories to keep your overall calorie intake in line.

A Word From Verywell

If you're eating less but still gaining weight, examine the quality of your diet. Choosing nutritious, high-fiber, high-protein foods will help you to feel full longer so you don't want eat as often. But calorie count matters, as well. If you're eating less, but eating foods that are high in calories (even if those foods are healthy) you'll have a hard time reaching your goal.

Check your total daily calorie needs and try to stay within a hundred calories of that target. If weight gain continues, check in with your health care provider to make sure that a medical condition or medication isn't causing you to gain weight.

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