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I've heard people claim that one should eat small meals every 4 hours (some people even go as far as waking up in the middle of the night to do this), While others advocate a daily fast of 16 hours (aka Intermittent Fasting)

Is there a consensus on what's healthy ?

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I don't know if this site is about food questions, but I don't think meal timing makes much of a difference. We evolved to feel hungry when we need food, so you should be able to just eat when you feel like it. –  Kate Nov 23 '12 at 21:42
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Well, the question "how often should one eat to stay physically fit" is also about physical fitness, isn't it? –  Brann Nov 23 '12 at 21:46
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That really depends on what your needs are. Without considering your activity level and schedule, meal timing has very little to do with fitness. If you're doing no physical activity, just eat when you feel like it. If you're doing a lot of physical activity, you'll need to time your nutrition better so that your body has the fuel it needs to repair and adapt. –  Kate Nov 23 '12 at 21:49
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I still think that without the context of your physical training activities, this is just a food question, though. –  Kate Nov 23 '12 at 21:54
    
This question is off topic as there is no relation to exercise. Please refer to the FAQ if you are unsure what is on or off topic on any site on the StackExchange network. There is a proposal for a Nutrition site on Area 51, however. –  Baarn Nov 23 '12 at 23:05

3 Answers 3

I think that this is a valid question for physical fitness here is why.

When you're out of shape and overweight you focus on two things: You're weight and you're muscle tone. The more you eat(to a certain extent) the more your body has to work with(as far as energy for exercise, and protein for repairing muscles after exercise).

Most of my experience with people trying to build muscle or get back in shape is that people go through cycles, either bulking up to build muscle or slimming down to reveal tone. I think this is a big part of looking good, do you eat lots and gain muscle mass or eat very little and slim down.

My answer from personal experience is that you need to have enough energy to do your daily tasks, and to plan for physical activity. It's ok to eat less than what your body needs to maintain it's weight if you want to lose weight, but you need to consider that you'll be losing muscle mass as well when you do this. Muscle mass burns more calories while you're idle, it also makes your body have good shape and look toned. It's also ok to eat more than your body needs when you're trying to gain muscle mass.

The balance is something only you can figure out. Personally I think that going though a muscle building cycle for 3-4 weeks, then a cardio/slimming cycle for 2-3 weeks is where I found my balance.

Eating more small meals spread throughout the day and a larger one before and after a workout is in my opinion(and many others) the way to manage you're food intake. I strongly believe in a low carb higher protein diet, but again, some people feel differently(distance runners?). The very way the human body works lets us know that when we fast the body stores the remaining energy and weakensd the ability of the mind to think quickly, so I'm pretty against the idea of fasting.

Consider that always trying to lose weight or maintain a weight may not be what makes you look good, looks aren't based on numbers, so if you only base your routine by number of carbs or meals and not improving what you see in front of you'll always be slightly disappointed in what you see.

That's just what I've learned about my body from the past decade. I hope it helped you out. Also if you tell me a bit more about your exercise routine and goals I can change my answer to further help you.

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Eating small meals each 3-4 hours is healthier because of smoother calories intake.

When you eat, your body receives calorie load. Calories mean energy for your body, but our bodies tend to "store" excessive unused calories as a fat to make use of it later. If you eat smaller portions, your body receives less calories in time and may fully transform them to energy. In this case you need to eat more often to keep your body energized.

Consider you need to intake 1500 calories daily. You can have just two meals of 750 calories each or you can have 5 meals of 300 calories each. In first case it's more likely to have excessive calories which will not be needed for your body at the moment. So eating small meals each 3-4 hours is much healthier. Also you will feel not so filled up and heavy as after a big meal.

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"In first case it's more likely to have excessive calories which will not be needed for your body at the moment." . This have no backing (to my knowledge) in proper science. The energy balance is total over time, not in a small window of when you are eating. –  conMan Nov 25 '12 at 19:45

If we are talking metabolism, meal timing have no effect what so ever. There are heaps of studies made and I don't think there is anyone refuting this (at least not in the scientific community), read this and this for example.

Much of this is about perceived satiety, which of course is individual. So if you go around hungry all day if eating 2 meals per day, then don't do that. If you on the other hand need to count every calorie to not overeat on 6 meals per day, then that maybe is something you have to think over.

Eating six meals per day is fine and maybe even preferable for people with exceptional high training load, only for the reason of getting enough energy. For average Joe with a somewhat sedentary life I would say that it invites for overeating.

There are also endocrine issues and other things that really is yet to be properly explained. (I have some early reports and might edit this post later).

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