How Many Times a Day Should You Eat with PCOS?
If you have PCOS, you may be wondering how many times a day should you eat? You’ve probably heard that eating multiple times a day keeps the metabolism “stoked” and helps prevent overeating at the next meal. Eating throughout the day may help lesson cravings and help prevent blood sugar and insulin spikes (assuming you are eating the right kinds of meals and snacks!). This is especially important is you have PCOS! However some newer research is showing that this isn’t always the case. We are learning there is no “one size fits all” answer to this question. You’ll need to listen to your body and find what works best for you.
So how do you know how many times a day should you eat with PCOS?
In order to determine meal pattern is best for you – 3 meals versus 3 meals + snacks, I’d recommend that you
really pay attention to how your body feels. Ask yourself these questions:
– How do you feel if you go more than 4- 5 hours without eating (assuming you had a balanced meal, not a huge bowl of pasta)?
– Do you get a headache, feel tired or weak in between meals?
-Do you start to crave sugar and other carbs in between meals?
– Or maybe you feel fine in between meals, but then get ravenous for your next meal? (pic credit)
If you answer yes to the above questions, you are probably best off having a snack in between meals.
– Do you feel that eating in between meals makes you more tired or opens the floodgates for more eating?
– Do you feel more satisfied with 3 larger meals versus 3 moderate meals with snacks in between?
If you answered yes, you may be better off having 3 meals a day and no snacks
What do the studies show?
Being a registered dietitian, I also like to look at science- based evidence to see which meal pattern offers benefits for weight loss, blood sugar and insulin control. As you probably guessed, the studies show conflicting results! Now keep in mind not all studies were done specifically in women with PCOS.
- The winner is: frequent eating
Researchers led by David Jenkins, MD, PhD divided their subjects into 2 groups. Both ate the same foods with the same number of calories. One group ate their food divided into 3 meals a day. The other group ate multiple small meals throughout the day. The results – the frequent meal group lost more weight, reported being less hungry, decreased insulin levels by 28% and cholesterol levels by 15%. Note: this was a very small study of 7 men. Study reference
This randomized, crossover, study was done on 40 women with PCOS comparing the effect of two different meal patterns (three vs six meals per day) on glucose and insulin levels. The calories in both diets were the same and were designed to maintain weight. The results showed six meals had a more favorable effect on post-oral glucose insulin sensitivity in women with PCOS compared with isocaloric three meals. Study reference
The winner is: 2-3 meals with no snacks
This randomized, open, crossover, study on 54 patients with type 2 diabetes compared the effect of six vs two meals a day, breakfast and lunch on body weight, hepatic fat content (HFC), insulin resistance and beta cell function. The daily caloric intake was the same in both groups. The results showed that eating only breakfast and lunch reduced body weight, HFC, fasting plasma glucose, C-peptide and glucagon, and increased OGIS, more than the same caloric restriction split into six meals. These results suggest that, for type 2 diabetic patients on a hypoenergetic diet, eating larger breakfasts and lunches may be more beneficial than six smaller meals during the day. Study reference
- The winner is: no difference. Controlled experiments in humans show that there is no metabolic advantage to eating 12 smaller meals versus eating three or four meals per day, with the same total number of calories. Reference
In my experience …
In my experience, I find that most women with PCOS experience fewer cravings and feel better overall when they eat 3 moderate sized meal with snacks in between. As to how many snacks you need depends upon the time of your meals. The time between lunch and dinner seems to be the most important time to plan a snack as this is the longest time stretch. Most of my clients don’t feel they needs a morning snack however you may if you have a really early breakfast. And the after dinner snack certainly isn’t a “necessity” however many of my clients like to incorporate a small smack! Pic credit
-Pay attention to how you body feels in between meals to assess whether you need a snack
0If you find you start to feel “low” or crave sugar around 4 pm, they plan to eat a snack ~ 3:45 pm. The trick will be to catch it before your blood sugar dips. Once it’s low, the 100 cal pack of nuts won’t cut it … you’ll be looking for sugar!
-Make sure your meals contain adequate protein, fat, fiber and some healthy carbs. This combo will help to hold you longer. Women who eat inadequate amounts of fat, fiber and protein are likely to get hungrier sooner
-If you do incorporate snacks into your diet AND are trying to lose weight, make sure you cut back a little at meals to allow for the extra calories in snacks
-Don’t feel you NEED to eat snacks in between meals if you feel fine without doing so as studies are mixed as to whether it is beneficial.
Check out this great article by Lisa Drayer, RD (including my quotes) on Should You Eat Three Big Meals or Many Mini-Meals?
Do you feel better eating just 3 meals a day or 3 meals + snacks?
I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.