Dossier: Healthy eating

Three big meals a day or five small ones?

Breakfast, lunch and dinner – and snacks in between: do adults really need so many calories each day? We have the answers.

Text: Isabelle Fretz; photo: iStock

An adult female needs between 1,700 and 2,000 calories a day, an adult male between 2,000 and 2,500. However, calorie requirements fluctuate considerably depending on how active you are in daily life, whether you do manual labour or sit at a desk all day, and whether you want to lose weight or build muscle.

How many times a day should we eat?

For a long time, it was recommended that we eat five smaller meals instead of three big ones. Today there’s a trend towards the less is more approach, with influencers and celebrities claiming that two meals a day are sufficient to cover our calorie requirements. However, Vanessa Brand, qualified nutritionist at the Zurich nutrition centre, advises against this: “When you only eat two meals a day, it’s difficult to get enough protein and fibre, which are key elements for muscles and digestion.” She recommends that her clients eat three main meals a day. “These meals should include protein, carbohydrates and vegetables, with vegetables making up the biggest portion.”

Here too, exceptions confirm the rule. Vanessa recommends that the following groups of people should also snack between meals:

  • People who develop cravings between the three main meals
  • People who experience a drop in concentration and performance during long breaks between meals
  • Children
  • Elderly people

However, Brand says that you have to think about what you eat and when you eat it. It’s also important to make sure that you don’t eat too soon before a main meal. She recommends snacks such as vegetable sticks with low-fat quark, pumpernickel with cottage cheese, or a handful of nuts. 

The benefits of three meals

If you give your body a break of four to six hours between meals, you’re doing a lot right because the body needs time to metabolise the food. And it takes a few hours for your blood sugar levels to stabilise. This is particularly important for people who want to lose weight. “If energy is constantly being supplied to the body, it doesn’t enter fat-burning mode,” says Brand.

So if you want to lose weight, you should stick to three main meals and only eat snacks if you really can’t help it. “If you can’t do without a snack, make sure you don’t choose easily digestible carbohydrates. Opt instead for sources of protein such as low-fat cheese and eggs or eat a handful of nuts.”

Healthy breakfast: start the day the right way

 Lunch: eat plenty of vegetables

Simple, healthy evening meals

The interviewee

Vanessa Brand is a qualified nutritionist (BSc) and works at the Zurich nutrition centre. Her areas of expertise include healthy nutrition and metabolic and cardiovascular diseases.