The decision to eat something or not used to just be driven by if you were hungry or not. Physical symptoms of hunger like low blood sugar, stomach rumbling and low energy indicate to the brain it’s time to get more energy from food. Most people now are fortunate to live with a surplus of food. We can eat anytime, not just necessarily when we are hungry.
Seeing, smelling and being around food can influence our decision to eat something, not just internal hunger cues.
We make about 200 decisions about food each day according to research from Dr. Brian Wansink from Cornell University (1).
Having a set schedule of eating can help provide structure for some people to help them lose weight. However, eating at set times, or set snacks in between meals, isn’t best for everyone.
There are arguments for eating on a set schedule or only when you feel hungry; both have their benefits. The key is to find what would work best for you and focus on eating nutrient dense foods whether it’s on a schedule or when your body is telling you to eat.
Benefit of eating when you’re hungry
Eating when you’re hungry can help guide you naturally for when you really need more energy, not when you just feel like eating.
Many people in today’s society are used to eating based on what others are eating around them, what they see or eating based on emotions.
Getting sensitized to when your body is telling you it’s time to eat can be beneficial for mindfulness. The trick is to eat when you notice starting signs of hunger, not ignore it until you are ravenous and will eat anything in front of you.
When we feel very hungry, we can be more prone to over eating. To avoid this, try to eat something healthy before you feel ravenous.
Draw backs of only eating when you’re hungry
Letting blood sugar get too low (hypoglycemia) may not be the best for people with blood sugar regulation issues.
If blood sugar levels get too low or are low for too long, cortisol can get released to stimulate glycogen breakdown. This glycogen break down can help increase blood sugar levels.
Some people do best not to let long gaps go in between meals, especially if there are concerns about hypoglycemia or high blood sugar.
A drawback of only eating when you’re hungry can be over eating when you do eat which may hamper weight loss efforts.
Benefit of eating on a schedule
Many health experts claim eating on a schedule, like 6-7 small meals a day, may be beneficial for weight loss compared to the traditional 3 meals a day.
This eating pattern can be helpful for some people because you are less likely to over eat because you don’t get too hungry.
Some also claim this eating pattern is more beneficial for preserving muscle mass. However, a 2015 meta-analysis study (2) looking at data from 15 studies with eating frequency only found 1 of these studies to show a benefit of eating more small meals and keeping muscle mass.
Even so, whether eating more frequently does or doesn’t help muscle mass, it can help regulate food intake for some people.
Eating on a schedule for 3 meals a day or more can help curb the urge to eat out of emotions or because other people are eating around you.
Draw backs of eating on a schedule
Eating on a schedule can sometimes mean you “should” eat even if you’re not hungry. In fact, people who want to gain weight often follow an eating program that has scheduled eating times.
Sometimes eating frequently, like every 2-3 hours, can increase someone’s total energy intake. Of course the opposite is true as well; some people can lose weight following an eating schedule.
Eating on a schedule can cause too much structure for some people and may increase risk of obsessive thoughts about food for some.
Any food intake pattern should be natural, not forced. Either eating only when hungry or eaten on a schedule can be helpful or taken to an extreme.
If you feel full and you are following a scheduled eating plan, you don’t need to eat. Make sure you are still listening to your body when following a structured eating plan.
The opposite is true too. If you are ravenous but not scheduled to eat until later, eating a small snack even if it’s before your scheduled meal could be helpful.
Related: 10 Low Calorie Low Carb Snacks
How to make you feel more satisfied after eating
If you are looking for ways to feel more satisfied after eating, there are certain things you can try.
Pairing a protein with fiber and a healthy fat source is the best way to feel satisfied after eating and delay the feeling of hunger after eating.
Protein has the highest satiety rating, and fiber can help slowly release energy into the blood stream instead of spiking blood sugar then send it crashing.
Natural, healthy choices of fiber include: fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.
Natural, healthy choices of protein include: low fat meats or dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts or nut butters, seeds and some grains.
Conclusion: Which one will work best for you?
An article (3) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association suggests either way of eating can work for weight loss.
The main point is taking in less calories than your body needs and eat nutrient dense foods instead of empty calories.
Related: Do you have to be hungry to lose weight?
Both eating on a schedule and eating when you’re hungry can be used for weight loss. They have both pros and cons; your eating pattern should be what sets you up for success not what works against your weaknesses.
Eating frequent small meals throughout the day is often suggested to help promote muscle mass, but the evidence for this is lacking from research.
There are some potential benefits from eating irregularly like with intermittent fasting, but this type of eating pattern may not be best for everyone.
People with blood sugar issues may do better on a more structured eating pattern.