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8 Min

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

Written by
Brooke McKelvey
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Cheri Bantilan
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 postprandial 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 in, meal planning can be a bit of a headache. So it’s not surprising if you’re not already thinking about your meal patterns too.

a couple of people making cookies and talking

If you’re not sure how often to eat, you’re not alone. A lot of people struggle with meal frequency and meal patterns. But meal frequency has been quite a hot topic of discussion recently, especially in the wellness community. It can affect everything from your body weight (like your weight loss or weight gain efforts), cholesterol levels, glucose tolerance, metabolic syndrome, and overall wellbeing.

Of course, there are many different opinions on how often you should be eating. Some suggest that increased meal frequency can help with various risk factors, from weight gain to health conditions. For example, there may be a reduced risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease. Other research suggests it may not really matter.

What we do know is that maintaining a consistent meal frequency can be important for overall health and wellness. According to some compelling recent 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. Understanding insulin sensitivity and how to improve your body's sensitivity to this hormone can help you take control of your health and reach your goals. 

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

a couple of people eating berries and fruits for breakfast

Are you trying to manage your insulin levels? You may be surprised to learn that the food you eat significantly impacts how your body handles this hormone. 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.

When it comes to managing our blood sugar levels, there are a few different schools of thought on how best to do so. And some of them relate to meal frequency. 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

What you eat is important, and when you eat matters too! Eating two to three meals a day impacts your insulin responses. It, in turn, impacts many health markers, including your body composition, weight, blood sugar levels, and glucose metabolism. Here are some pros and cons to 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
  • As the day goes on, insulin sensitivity decreases. So, it’s no surprise health professionals advise us 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 (AKA intermittent fasting) earlier in the evening without feeling hunger pangs before bed.
  • Research shows that skipping a meal in the evening to begin your fast is an effective way to reduce weight and fasting glucose levels. It can also be helpful for those struggling to manage conditions like type 2 diabetes. 
  • When you eat later in the day, your body is less insulin sensitive. Eating later in the day can also affect things like your circadian rhythms.
  • According to research, eating larger, more well-balanced meals less frequently may curb hunger. It can also provide more satisfaction than eating several small meals a day. 
  • When you eat less frequently, you give your pancreas a needed break from producing insulin and storing energy. 
  • 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. But, it also indicates that it will reduce your overall trends after a prolonged period.
  • In some cases, large meals can cause large spikes in your postprandial blood glucose levels. Big meals can send your blood sugar out of control in some cases, so this could help even out large swings.
  • Having a higher glycemic average over time is better than having continuously fluctuating levels every day. Remember, this can be different for different people. Using technology like CGMs and working with your doctor or dietitian is an excellent way to ensure you’re doing what’s best for your body.

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

Do you know how eating four to six (or more!) 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. Here are some pros and cons so you can see how eating four to six small meals a day impacts insulin responses. It's helpful to know both sides, so you can use that information to optimize your diet and diabetes management. 

Benefits of Eating Many Small Meals a Day

eggs and a bun on a plate and a bowl of salad
  • You are more sensitive in the morning when breaking your fast to carbohydrates. 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 are easier to manage with frequent, small meals.

Cons of Eating Many Small Meals a Day

a person eating baked potatoes, tomatoes and drinking orange juice
  • Research shows that eating more frequently does not affect the amount of weight loss that you experience. 
  • It is harder to create a fully balanced meal with small meals. If your meal isn't properly balanced, it can lead to blood sugar fluctuations after some of the meals. 
  • Research shows that people (as a general rule) who eat larger, less frequent meals have lower blood glucose levels. 
  • Because your portion sizes are smaller, your carbohydrate portions should reflect that and be smaller. You may find that this can help you monitor your overall blood glucose trends. 

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

two bowls of noodles, tofu and herbs

Everyone’s body has different food requirements based on many things, including age, body mass index, physical activity, gender, and genetics. So, it is essential to note that 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.

As one of these guidelines, our Nutrition Team encourages getting to a comfortable routine eating two to three meals a day. Intermittent fasting can be a handy tool in regulating blood glucose levels and insulin resistance. In some cases, your body may need more frequent meals throughout the day, depending on how your blood sugar levels react to larger meals.

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. 

a person wearing Nutrisense CGM and standing

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.
Related Article

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Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.

With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.

When you join the program, our team of credentialed dietitians and nutritionists are available for additional support and guidance to help you reach your goals.

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

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