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Meal Frequency and Insulin Sensitivity: How Many Times Should You be Eating in a Day?

Kasey Brixius, MS, RDN, CSSD, IFNCP

Published in Nutrition

8 min read

March 10, 2022
May 24, 2023
four lunch boxes of rice and vegetables
four lunch boxes of rice and vegetables

We're all pretty different when it comes to dietary habits and eating patterns. Have you ever wondered where you stand when it comes to yours? For example, are you the sort of person who eats three square meals a day, or do you prefer grazing?

Do you weave physical activity into your after-eating activities or choose a nap after lunch? Does your daily food intake involve a lot of snacking, or do you save that for special occasions?

From focusing on high-carbohydrate or low-carbohydrate meals to ensuring you get all your macronutrients, meal planning can sometimes feel overwhelming. If you’re not sure how often to eat, you’re not alone.

a couple of people making cookies and talking

A lot of people struggle with finding the right meal frequency and meal pattern to support their health goals. Meal frequency can affect everything from your body weight, glucose levels, other markers of metabolic health, and overall well-being.

Of course, there are many different opinions on how often you should be eating. Some suggest that increased meal frequency can help with weight management or reduction of disease risk. For example, there may be a reduced risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease. 

What we do know is that maintaining consistent meal timing can be important for overall health and wellness. According to some research, the number of times we eat each day may significantly impact our insulin sensitivity and overall metabolic health. 

So, with that in mind, here’s what you should know about the effect of meal frequency on your health.

Understanding Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin sensitivity is essential for overall health, and it's something that you should be aware of if you're looking to manage your weight or blood sugar levels. Insulin is a hormone that helps your cells take in sugar from the blood to use for energy. 

While understanding insulin sensitivity and blood sugar responses to food and exercise is vital for everyone, it is crucial for those with conditions that directly influence insulin sensitivity, like hypothyroidism, type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

conditions that affect insulin sensitivity: prediabetes, type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, obesity, Cushing's syndrome, acromegaly

How Eating Impacts Insulin

Eating has a significant impact on insulin levels, and the way you eat can either help or hinder your ability to maintain stable blood sugar levels. There are a few different schools of thought related to meal frequency and its ability to impact glucose and insulin.

a couple of people eating berries and fruits for breakfast

One popular option is to eat a small number of large meals throughout the day, while another is to eat four to six small meals every day. It’s challenging to pinpoint what the best move is here.

After all, research shows varying responses among studies with people suffering from different conditions. So, it's a good idea to discuss your dietary goals, including meal frequency, with your doctor before you make any changes. 

How Eating Two-Three Meals a Day Impacts Insulin Responses

Here are some pros and cons of eating larger meals less often and what you need to know about how meal timing affects your insulin response.

Pros of Eating Two to Three Meals a Day

a person eating noodles, different types of cheese on cutting board
  • When you eat later in the day, your body is less insulin sensitive. So, it’s no surprise health professionals advise against eating large meals too late in the day. Eating two to three well-balanced meals earlier in the day can help you begin your overnight fast earlier in the evening and start again with an earlier eating window the following day.
  • Some research shows that skipping a meal in the evening to begin your fast may be an effective way to reduce weight and fasting glucose levels in those with type 2 diabetes
  • According to some research, eating larger, more well-balanced meals less frequently may curb hunger. It may also provide more satisfaction than eating several small meals a day. 
  • When you eat less frequently, some believe you may give your pancreas a helpful break from producing insulin.
  • Research has shown that beginning your day (or breaking your fast) with a large, high-energy meal helps optimize metabolic control.

Cons of Eating Two to Three Meals a Day

a bottle of milk, a bowl of blueberries and a person pouring rolled oats
  • Research on short-term fasting has shown that it may initially cause spikes in blood glucose levels. 
  • In some cases, large meals can cause large spikes in your postprandial blood glucose levels. It may often also depend on what you’re eating during those meals. 
  • Some studies show that individuals eating a single large daily meal had higher fasting glucose levels and impaired morning glucose tolerance associated with a delayed insulin response during a two-month diet period compared to those consuming the more frequent three meals/day.
  • Research shows that having a higher glycemic average over time with relatively stable glucose may be preferable to having dramatic glucose fluctuations with a relatively lower average. Remember, this can be different for different people. Using technology like CGMs and working with your doctor or dietitian is an excellent way to investigate these connections more deeply.

How Eating Four to Six Small Meals a Day Impacts Insulin Responses

When you eat smaller meals throughout the day, your body releases insulin in response to those meals more often than if you ate only two to three larger meals. However, since these are smaller meals, the overall release of insulin may also be much smaller. Here are some pros and cons of this eating pattern.

Benefits of Eating Many Small Meals a Day

eggs and a bun on a plate and a bowl of salad
  • Due to the way your body may be more sensitive to carbs after breaking a fast, eating a smaller breakfast might be beneficial for some. So, starting with a small meal of protein and fiber before having carbohydrates may work better for your body.
  • If you suffer from gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), your doctor may advise eating small meals throughout the day. Certain health conditions, such as chronic fatigue, may be easier to manage with more frequent, smaller meals. 
  • Some studies even show that eating four meals per day, compared with eating three meals per day, was associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This means that more frequent meals might have a positive impact on glucose and insulin response for some.

Cons of Eating Many Small Meals a Day

a person eating baked potatoes, tomatoes and drinking orange juice
  • It may be harder to create a fully balanced meal with small meals. If your meal isn't properly balanced, it could possibly lead to blood sugar fluctuations after some of the meals. 
  • Though research is definitely conflicting in this area, some suggest certain people might have lower glucose levels with fewer meals. Again, it may largely depend on what foods you are eating during your meals. 

For Best Results, How Should You Plan Out Your Meals?

two bowls of noodles, tofu and herbs

It is essential to note that everyone is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how you should plan your meals and how often you should eat. Still, there are guidelines that can be helpful.

At Nutrisense, we know that there are many different reasons your body may do better with more frequent or fewer meals. Since research is conflicted and controversial in terms of the exact number of meals that are best for everyone, it's important to be open to experimenting with different approaches to find what works best for your unique body. Tracking your glucose, symptoms, and meal patterns can help you find the answers you’re looking for. 

However, there is a growing body of research observing that eating fewer than two meals a day may be linked to more stress activation in some people, including poorer glucose outcomes and higher risks for nutrient imbalances

Some forms of time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting may be helpful for certain people. In some cases, your body may need more frequent meals throughout the day, depending on how your blood sugar levels react to larger meals.

a person wearing Nutrisense CGM and standing

Here's where wearable health technology like CGMs can be helpful. They measure your blood glucose trends over time so that you can see what foods and what size meals work best with your body. 

Pro Tips From our Nutrisense dietitian, Stephanie Etherington

  • Eat intuitively and listen to your hunger cues. Your body will tell you when you are hungry and full. Try to balance your meals properly so that your body is getting the right messages from what you consume. 
  • Start your day with protein. Research shows that eating protein to break your fast in the morning can help you stay fuller throughout the day and provide you with better energy levels. 
  • Meal planning is a great way to ensure you're getting the proper nutrients and that your food expenditure is in check. Check out our guide to meal planning.
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Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Reviewed by: Heather Davis, MS, RDN, LDN

Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.

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