Find yourself sitting down to lunch and realising "wow I haven’t eaten today?" Or maybe you read our recent article and realised you’ve been under eating and want a plan going forward. You might be in eating disorder recovery and have been told to "eat regularly" but you've no idea how.
Eating regularly can prove really challenging for some people. Whether it’s due to a hectic work or life schedule, a lack of appetite, or fear of gaining weight or eating too much.
In this article we’ll outline what it means to eat regularly and give you some tips to help you eat more regularly.
What is regular eating?
If you look up regularly in the dictionary it means often and evenly - with similar spaces between one meal and the next. Basically it means spacing out your food intake and not consuming it in one go.
It makes sense when you think of meals being a source of energy for the body: the more regular the supply, the better the body functions.
How regularly should you eat?
Now this depends on who you ask.
The NHS recommends three meals a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner. But their website also recommends finding what works for you, eating smaller meals and snacks if that’s easier for you.
Studies say that eating three meals a day or six meals a day makes no difference - it depends on what you’re eating as to how it affects your health (and it should be noted most studies were looking into weight loss).
As disordered eating specialists, we never recommend going more than 3-4 hours without eating. Yes, that even counts if you're not hungry or you're working.
What happens if you don’t eat regularly?
As with many things in the body, it depends on the individual. But a common thread running through the side effects of not eating are that your brain and body doesn’t run optimally. If you find yourself experiencing brain fog or being irritable throughout the day, it might be that you need to eat more regularly.
Some side effects of not eating regularly include:
Your blood sugar can drop, which in turn leads to brain fog, irritability, shakiness and fatigue. Some people refer to it as ‘bonking’ due to low insulin. This is especially dangerous if you live with diabetes.
Your metabolism can slow down. Your body doesn’t know when its next meal is coming from. So it tries to retain energy by slowing all of its processes down.
You might be undereating, which has its own side effects including low mood, food obsession, hair loss and amenorrhea (losing your period).
You might be experiencing binging episodes. If you don’t eat early in the day, especially as a by-product of restriction, you might experience late night binges where you eat a large amount of food. Binging is often accompanied by a feeling of guilt and being out of control.
You might start to produce cortisol, the stress hormone, which can cause ‘hanger’.
Your digestion might be affected. Going for long periods without eating will slow down your digestion, which means when you then eat a large meal to compensate you might experience bloating. This might be accompanied by gas and uncomfortable fullness as well as digestive issues such as acid reflux.
There are now diets that revolve around scheduling exact meals at exact times. And it's easy for eating regularly to seem that overwhelming, or obsessive.
Eating regularly can be a little more intuitive than that, with some gentle reminders laid out to help steer you towards food.
Some Frequently Asked Questions about regular eating
How long is too long without eating? Fans of Intermittent Fasting (not us!) will argue you can go quite a few hours without eating and be absolutely fine. But if you start to notice yourself feeling sluggish and not being able to concentrate it’s worth reaching for some food. Becoming in tune with your body’s cues such as hunger and fullness levels is important to know how long is too long for you.
What is the healthiest eating schedule? Whatever schedule works for you, while allowing you to take in enough nutrients to function at your best. It may vary day by day, or it may be a little more strict.
How soon after waking up should you eat? It is often recommended to eat within the first two hours of waking up, this allows breakfast to have its effect on your metabolism. Your body has just spent all night resting and digesting so is fairly hungry.
Is it unhealthy to skip breakfast? Skipping breakfast has been shown to decrease alertness and productivity. Your brain might need the fuel in the morning, as well as your body for physical processes. People who eat breakfast have been shown to have lower rates of heart disease and high blood pressure and cholesterol.
Will I gain weight if I eat regularly? If you’re been under-eating then maybe. We cannot guarantee yes or no. But if you’re eating irregularly it might be causing a whole cascade of negative symptoms that are much worse for your body than gaining weight.
Our 8 tips to eating regularly in disordered eating and eating disorder recovery
These tips are also applicable outwith eating disorder recovery. They will be helpful if you're becoming an Intuitive Eater, if you've dieted for a long time, or if you struggle to eat regularly.
Set an alarm. This is easily done on your phone, this will provide a visual/audio reminder to eat. It's hard to miss. If you’re at work it might be worth setting a notification or silent alarm.
Use a sticky note. The more you see something the more it will remind you. Put it on your computer or laptop somewhere in view. Maybe a time to eat, or just a general reminder.
Plan food a few days in advance so you know what you have available. Not only will this help you roughly know when and what to eat but if you have certain meals you really like it helps with looking forward to eating.
Write a brief food plan. This ensures you’re eating enough and have enough food to eat as regularly as you’d like. We're not a fan of the "beach body guide" meal plans, but we are a fan of "food intention plans."
Listen to The Ease With Food Podcast episode on meals plans to combat binge eating here.
Eat before you get too hungry, otherwise you will be too hungry to make decisions. Have you ever heard the saying never go shopping on an empty stomach? It’s because you shop quickly and without thinking about your decisions. Eating before you’re too hungry will help you stick to any plans.
Have emergency snacks available. It’s easy to eat your lunch by early morning at work and feel a little stuck. Or knowing you have a while until lunch but you can feel hunger setting in. Having snacks available means the option is there to eat as you need. Emergency snack drawer at work anyone?
Remember things can’t be perfect. There will be days where you leave the gap a little too long and feel terrible, or skip breakfast because you’re running late. These things happen, and small consistent effort is the best for you.
Give it time. Change takes time and continual effort. You might experience feeling better straight away, but it may take a while for your body to adjust and that’s normal.
If in doubt, having snacks at the ready and a faint plan prove useful to eating regularly. The most important thing is to find what works for you. Eating regularly based on someone else’s schedule may never work for you. And that’s okay. Find your happy medium.
We hope this blog has been helpful. We know that regular eating can be tricky. It's one part of eating disorder recovery and your path to becoming an Intuitive Eater, but it's one that can take a long time.
As always, we are available for 1:1 Nutrition Counselling support to help you.
Team Ease Nutrition Therapy x