How Often to Eat for Metabolic Health

Meal timing and metabolic health are closely linked—what you eat and when you eat it can significantly impact your body's ability to efficiently burn calories and use nutrients as fuel.

a woman sitting on a chair eating a bowl of food

Understanding the science of meal timing and how to eat with your body's natural rhythms can support metabolic health and overall wellness. As more and more people begin to understand that health is so much more than what we weigh, the interest in metabolic health grows. Metabolic health considers how well the body processes food and nutrients, and could be a better predictor of long-term health than weight alone.

Exercise, food, and supplements are usually the first things that come to mind when we think about how to improve our metabolism, but there's one other important factor: meal frequency.

How often we eat can be one way to impact our metabolism, but there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Here's a look at what the research says about finding the right meal frequency for metabolic health (spoiler alert: it depends on the individual).

Metabolism Is A Big Part of Metabolic Health

Let's take a second to break down metabolism, metabolic health, and how they are related. 

  • Metabolism measures how quickly your body turns food into energy. A faster metabolism means your body burns calories quicker, while a slower metabolism means the opposite.

Resting metabolic rate (RMR) is how many calories your body burns at rest. Even when you aren't actively moving, your metabolism is humming away in the background, running all of the processes that keep you alive.

  • Metabolic health measures how well your metabolism is working. It looks at all the ways your metabolism influences your health. It's not just about how many calories you burn (although this is foundational and important), but also how efficiently the body uses the nutrients you obtain from your food to drive all the functions in your body. 

Because all of this influences the health of your body as a whole—from your brain to your heart to your hormones—it's essential to optimize metabolic health for long-term well-being.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/metabolic-health">metabolic health</a>.</p>

What Affects Your Metabolic Rate?

Metabolic rate is individualized, and a lot of different variables can impact how slow or fast a person's metabolism is, including:

  • Gender
  • Age
  • Muscle mass and body composition
  • Health status (metabolic rate goes up with illness or fever)
  • Thyroid function
  • Medications

In other words, some people are naturally predisposed to have a faster metabolism (lucky them!), while others have to work a little harder.

Signs of a Healthy Metabolism

When metabolism is working optimally, you should feel good—energetic, vibrant, and able to think clearly. If your metabolism is out of whack, you might feel fatigued, have brain fog or unhealthy food cravings. 

Other signs that your metabolism could use a tune-up include:

  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight.
  • Mood changes, such as irritability or anxiety.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Digestive issues.
  • Hormonal imbalances.

If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, it's a good idea to talk to your health care provider to rule out any health issues that could be contributing.

Does Eating More Often Increase Metabolic Rate?

You may have heard that eating more often can increase metabolic rate. Or maybe you've heard it's better to eat less often. So what's the truth?

The reality is that studies are mixed on whether eating more often can increase metabolism. 

It likely depends on the individual. Someone who skips meals earlier in the day, but ends up eating all their calories later on will probably notice improvements by eating four or five smaller meals throughout the day because they will feel less hungry and make better food choices.

Similarly, someone who has consistently followed an overly-restrictive diet that stresses out the body will notice that eating more often (and more calories) can help to normalize metabolism.

But for someone who regularly eats without over-restriction, there may not be much of a difference in metabolic rate when meals are spaced closer together or further apart. 

One thing to note: You may hear that eating more often could boost metabolism because of the thermic effect of food. The thermic effect of food refers to the calories burned in the process of digesting and metabolizing food. 

It's true that the thermic effect of food increases with more frequent eating. Still, if you eat a 500-calorie breakfast or two 250-calorie snacks, there's virtually no difference in the number of calories you'll burn digesting those meals. 

Even if eating more often doesn't boost metabolism, it could have other benefits for certain people.

How Meal Frequency Affects Metabolic Regulation

Metabolic regulation, or the ability to keep blood sugar and energy levels stable throughout the day, is vital for overall health.

Eating more often could help some people regulate their metabolism by preventing crashes in blood sugar and energy levels. Still, it's not black and white.

Some research links eating smaller meals throughout the day with better cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood sugar levels—all important for metabolic health.

But, there's also research suggesting the complete opposite, linking grazing throughout the day to weight gain, elevated glucose, and higher insulin levels (more on this below). 3

woman biting into a granola bar
Using a CGM can help you understand your body's unique response to the timing of meals and snacks.

Why Are Studies on Meal Frequency and Metabolic Health Mixed?

Once again, it may be related to differences between each person. Many health benefits linked to eating more often are seen in people already struggling with blood sugar dysregulation or other health concerns. The same benefits aren't always noted for people who are at their ideal weight or have healthy glucose metabolism. 3

So what are the arguments in favor of eating more often?

Some studies suggest that people who lose weight and keep it off (one of the biggest hurdles in weight loss) are more likely to eat three meals and two snacks daily than those who gain it back.

The benefit for weight loss maintenance may be related to hunger hormones and feeling less hungry between meals.

Ghrelin is a hormone that increases hunger and makes us feel like we need to eat. Skipping meals or spacing them far apart can increase ghrelin levels, making us want to eat more later in the day.

Interestingly there may also be an inverse relationship between ghrelin and insulin, which means when insulin goes up, ghrelin goes down. 

Insulin is the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar and energy levels. When we eat, insulin is released to help shuttle glucose (sugar) from the bloodstream into cells for energy. That said, too much insulin is also a problem, so it's a delicate balance.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/hormones-and-weight-loss">hormones and weight loss</a>.</p>

Does Eating More Often Help Blood Sugar Balance?

Studies on blood sugar regulation are (surprise!) mixed again. On the one hand, studies suggest that people with blood sugar dysregulation or type 2 diabetes who eat more often see a lower blood sugar spike after meals. 3

Fewer spikes mean less insulin is needed. Maintaining stable blood sugar (instead of big spikes and drops) could help keep energy levels more consistent.

But for people without any blood sugar issues, there may be no benefit to eating more often for glucose metabolism. And for some people, eating less often could give the body a break and support metabolic health. 5 A study on healthy adults found that eating less frequently without snacking between meals supported a healthy weight long-term.

Confused yet? Don't blame you. Nutrition science would be way easier to follow if we could just say that something worked for everyone, but we can't really do that. Since everyone has differences in their genetics, body types, age, and so much more, nutrition advice really needs to be individualized. 

Here's one thing we can say: considering the time of day could impact your metabolic health even more.

How Circadian Rhythms Affect Metabolism

Our bodies have natural circadian rhythms, or daily cycles of physical, mental, and behavioral changes. These rhythms are determined by an internal biological clock that responds to light and darkness in the environment. The study of the interplay between circadian rhythms, metabolism, and nutrition is known as chrononutrition.9

Circadian rhythms affect everything from hormones to body temperature to metabolism. And when these rhythms are disrupted, it can lead to metabolic issues like insulin resistance. These disruptions are seen with age, but even with jet lag or in people who work night shifts. 9

Remember the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Turns out, there may be some truth to it, and it may be related to circadian rhythms. One study found that insulin sensitivity (or how responsive the cells are to insulin) was 54 percent higher before noon compared to midnight. 

Another study found that when men with prediabetes ate earlier in the day (before 3 p.m.), metabolic markers like insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and oxidative stress all improved compared to a regular 12-hour eating window.

In one study, people who ate a late lunch took longer to lose weight—and lost fewer overall pounds—even though they followed the same low-calorie diet as people who ate earlier. And another found that eating more calories at breakfast led to more weight loss and better metabolic health markers like glucose, insulin, and even lower ghrelin levels than those who ate the most calories at dinner. 

So it may not only be how often you eat but also when you eat that impacts your metabolism and metabolic health.

Does Skipping Meals Help or Hurt Metabolic Health?

Based on all of the above, what if you skip a meal? Does it help or hurt your metabolism? The answer: it depends.

Some people may do well-skipping meals if (and this is a big if) it's planned in a way where other meals are nourishing and meet their calorie and nutrient needs. But if someone runs out the door without breakfast, ends up starving at 1 p.m., and reaches for the first thing they see—like cookies and treats in the break room—it won't have the same effect.


Let's look at a few examples.

woman eating a bowl of cereal and an orange for breakfast
Is eating breakfast important? It depends on your unique biological makeup.

Is It OK to Skip Breakfast?

Based on the studies above, most recommendations point to eating more earlier in the day for better metabolic health. If you're not eating breakfast, you may not be getting the benefits of having a more responsive metabolism earlier in the day.

As always, there are exceptions. Some people may do just fine skipping breakfast and not see any adverse effects on their metabolism or metabolic health. If you do skip breakfast, make sure your first meal is nutrient-rich and filling enough, so you don't end up overeating later in the day.

If you struggle with metabolic dysregulation, especially impaired glucose metabolism, you may want to see how your body responds to eating a filling breakfast.

Can Time-Restricted Eating Support a Healthy Metabolism?

Purposely skipping meals as part of time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting protocols is a different story. Time-restricted eating means eating all meals within a specific window, usually 8-12 hours. This usually means skipping breakfast or dinner, and when done correctly, these approaches can have a positive impact on metabolism, inflammation, and other markers of health.

Many people skip breakfast as part of time-restricted eating, but it may be worth considering circadian rhythms when choosing which meal to skip. Eating earlier and having a bigger breakfast may be more beneficial for metabolism than eating later in the day and having a bigger dinner. 

The most important consideration for time-restricted eating is making sure you're getting all the calories and nutrients you need from the meals you do eat. 

Planning ahead and being prepared with nutrient-rich snacks and meals can help ensure you meet your needs while following a time-restricted eating protocol. If it doesn't feel good for your body, it's probably not the right fit.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/is-intermittent-fasting-healthy">intermittent fasting</a>.</p>

How to Time Meals and Snacks to Support Metabolic Health

The best eating schedule is the one that works for your body. Ask yourself a few questions to get started:

  • Am I someone who feels better with three meals or several smaller meals and snacks throughout the day?
  • How do I feel when I skip a meal?
  • Do I have trouble digesting first thing in the morning?
  • How does my blood sugar respond after eating?
  • Do I feel better eating more earlier or later in the day?

If you're not sure, it's OK to experiment. Try different meal frequencies and timings and see how you feel. You can even try using a continuous glucose monitor to better understand how your blood sugar responds to different meal patterns. 

Maybe you'll find that your blood sugar drops too low if you go too long between meals or that you feel better with more frequent, smaller meals.

The bottom line is that there's no one-size-fits-all answer to how often you should eat. It depends on many factors, including your activity level, energy needs, hunger cues, and blood sugar response. Paying attention to your body and how you feel can help you find the eating pattern that's right for you.

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References

  1. Araújo, J., Cai, J., & Stevens, J. (2019). Prevalence of Optimal Metabolic Health in American Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009-2016. Metabolic syndrome and related disorders, 17(1), 46–52. https://doi.org/10.1089/met.2018.0105
  2. McMurray, R. G., Soares, J., Caspersen, C. J., & McCurdy, T. (2014). Examining variations of resting metabolic rate of adults: a public health perspective. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 46(7), 1352–1358. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000232
  3. Kulovitz, M. G., Kravitz, L. R., Mermier, C., Gibson, A. L., Conn, C. A., Kolkmeyer, D., & Kerksick, C. M. (2014). Potential role of meal frequency as a strategy for weight loss and health in overweight or obese adults. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 30(4), 386–392. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2013.08.009
  4. Bachman, J. L., Phelan, S., Wing, R. R., & Raynor, H. A. (2011). Eating frequency is higher in weight loss maintainers and normal-weight individuals than in overweight individuals. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(11), 1730–1734. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2011.08.006
  5. Paoli, A., Tinsley, G., Bianco, A., & Moro, T. (2019). The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting. Nutrients, 11(4), 719. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11040719
  6. Chabot, F., Caron, A., Laplante, M., & St-Pierre, D. H. (2014). Interrelationships between ghrelin, insulin and glucose homeostasis: Physiological relevance. World journal of diabetes, 5(3), 328–341. https://doi.org/10.4239/wjd.v5.i3.328
  7. Alencar, M. K., Beam, J. R., McCormick, J. J., White, A. C., Salgado, R. M., Kravitz, L. R., Mermier, C. M., Gibson, A. L., Conn, C. A., Kolkmeyer, D., Ferraro, R. T., & Kerksick, C. M. (2015). Increased meal frequency attenuates fat-free mass losses and some markers of health status with a portion-controlled weight loss diet. Nutrition research (New York, N.Y.), 35(5), 375–383. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nutres.2015.03.003
  8. Kahleova, H., Lloren, J. I., Mashchak, A., Hill, M., & Fraser, G. E. (2017). Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study 2. The Journal of nutrition, 147(9), 1722–1728. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.116.244749
  9. Kessler, K., & Pivovarova-Ramich, O. (2019). Meal Timing, Aging, and Metabolic Health. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(8), 1911. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms20081911
  10. Stenvers, D. J., Scheer, F., Schrauwen, P., la Fleur, S. E., & Kalsbeek, A. (2019). Circadian clocks and insulin resistance. Nature reviews. Endocrinology, 15(2), 75–89. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41574-018-0122-1
  11. Carrasco-Benso, M. P., Rivero-Gutierrez, B., Lopez-Minguez, J., Anzola, A., Diez-Noguera, A., Madrid, J. A., Lujan, J. A., Martínez-Augustin, O., Scheer, F. A., & Garaulet, M. (2016). Human adipose tissue expresses intrinsic circadian rhythm in insulin sensitivity. FASEB journal : official publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 30(9), 3117–3123. https://doi.org/10.1096/fj.201600269RR
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About the Author

Caitlin Beale Headshot
Caitlin Beale is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer with a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a background in acute care, integrative wellness, and clinical nutrition.
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