Our forks drum to the beat of the ticking clock. Instead of eating when you’re hungry or need nourishment, people often wait until the clock ticks 12 to eat lunch. For hundreds of years, humans have been pacing to three meals a day, but the way we regulate meals has changed, according to new dieting advice and its hopeful followers. Sorry to break it to you, but according to the experts, eating six meals a day doesn’t magically accelerate your metabolism and make you lose weight. But it can help you sustain longer bouts of energy.

People will argue those who eat six meals a day experience less cravings, but that’s only because they’re constantly quelling cravings with meals every two to three hours a day. Each meal must limit approximately 300 to 400 calories per meal for the average adult consuming 1,800 to 2,400 calories a day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Calories are used as a measurement tool to calculate the energy a food or beverage provides from carbohydrates, fats, proteins, which should balance out with the amount of energy physically exerted.  

Every time you bite down on a burger or slurp up a smoothie, your body makes thousands of metabolic reactions in order to process the nutrients you’ve eaten. Calories from food and beverages are combined with oxygen and release the energy your body needs to function based on height, weight, age, and gender. You gain weight when you eat more calories than you burn, or burn fewer calories than you eat from either overconsuming or lacking physical activity.

Understanding Your Metabolism

Boosting your metabolism’s rate of processing food burns more calories. Each piece of food you swallow has a thermogenic effect of food (TEF), which increases your metabolism to a certain degree, according to the American Society for Clinical Nutrition. It measures the amount of calories needed to process the food you ate by taking 10 percent of total calories. If during breakfast you ate 400 calories, it took your body approximately 40 calories to process the entire meal. However, certain foods are calculated differently. Protein, for example, has a greater thermogenic effect than carbohydrates and fats, which means it’ll help the body burn calories faster.

Certain types of foods are also responsible for putting you to sleep or picking you up. Foods that can maintain energy, such as protein or complex carbohydrates, have the power to keep you awake and alert. Foods with the amino acid tryptophan can cause sleepiness, and those found in carbohydrates put the brain to sleep. Large meals can make people feel drowsy, which is why calorie limitations are key to regulating energy levels. Foods rich in carbohydrates cause the post-lunch circadian rhythm dip, according to the National Sleep Foundation, which is when a protein or food high in sugar (like dark chocolate) will come in handy.

A 2012 study led by Harvard Medical School challenged the “a calorie is a calorie” school of thought by comparing foods with different glycemic levels. Diets that reduce the surge in blood sugar after a meal, such as those with low-glycemic indexes and fewer carbohydrates, are optimal for those trying to achieve lasting weight loss. A different amount of digestive energy is required for each macronutrient.

“We’ve found that, contrary to nutritional dogma, all calories are not created equal,” said the study’s author Dr. David Ludwig, the director of the Optimal Weight for Life Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Total calories burned plummeted by 300 calories on the low-fat diet compared to the low-carbohydrate diet, which would equal the number of calories typically burned in an hour of moderate-intensity physical activity.”

Aside from food selection, there are several other ways to speed up an otherwise healthy person’s metabolism. Aerobic activity from walking running, cycling, and swimming can speed up your metabolism and help you lose weight. Because muscle tissue burns more calories than fat tissue, incorporating muscle-strength training into your routine two or more days a week will increase your metabolic rate.  

What Eating 3 Meals A Day Looks Like

Americans have been eating three meals a day since European settlers arrived. If you’re trying to keep the tradition alive divvy your meals up 600 to 800 calories per meal, depending upon your snacking rituals. Some people like to break up any hunger pangs with 100 to 200 calorie snacks. If so, enjoy a hearty breakfast of 1 cup of oats, 1/2 a grapefruit, 4 scrambled egg whites, and 1 small plain Greek yogurt mixed with 2 tablespoons of flax meal (600 calories).

Four to five hours later you’ll be ready for your lunch break. You can have a barbecue pork sandwich made with 1/2 pound of boneless pork tenderloin cut marinated with 1/2 cup of reduced-sodium barbecue sauce and 1/2 tablespoon of chopped chipotle chilies in adobe sauce and grill them up and pile onto two toasted buns (812 calories). For mid-afternoon snack, scoop a handful of 20 plain almonds (140 calories).

At dinnertime you could try a tuscan chicken pasta dish by cooking up 2 ounces of Barilla Plus penne pasta, two chicken breasts, with 1 teaspoon of olive oil, 1 clove of crushed garlic, 1/2 teaspoon of dried rosemary, 1 cup of cannellini beans, 2 tablespoons of diced roasted red pepper, 4 cups of baby spinach leaves, and 2 tablespoons of grated parmesan (800 calories).

As far as timing is concerned, the key is to eat your last meal of the day, whether it’s your third or sixth, three to four hours before you go to sleep. If you eat dinner too late, you’ll wake up feeling sluggish and it also dramatically increases your risk of developing acid reflux disease, according to digestive expert Dr. Jamie Koufman.

What Eating 6 Meals A Day Looks Like

Start your day off with your first breakfast of a bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich. Crack 1 large egg with a dash of salt and pepper and melt over a piece of Colby cheese. Cook up 2 slices of bacon, throw them onto the eggs and sandwich them in between a toasted biscuit (388 calories). A few hours later, maybe you’ve finished your morning workout or just arrived to work; you’ll be ready for round two. Oatmeal blueberry pancakes are cooked up with 1/2 a cup of uncooked rolled oats, 1/3 cup of egg whites, 1/4 of a banana, 1/4 cup of frozen blueberries, 1 tablespoon of Greek yogurt, and 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and vanilla extract (398 calories).

For your first lunch, you can have a chicken salad stuffed pita. Take 1/2 cup of chicken breast, 1/2 an apple mixed with 1 tablespoon of low-fat Greek yogurt, and stuff it into a whole wheat pita (344 calories). Wait a couple hours until you can have your second lunch of chilled cucumber and avocado soup, puree together 1/2 a cucumber, 1 avocado, and the juice of 1 lime (365 calories).

For your first dinner, there’s the baked chicken with mushrooms and sweet potato. Bake 1/2 a chicken breast up with 1 cup of baby Portobello mushrooms, 1 tablespoon of sliced chives and olive oil with 1 medium sweet potato (382 calories). After you do something for a couple of hours, it’ll be time to eat your sixth meal of the day. Toss up a margherita salad using 2 cups of mesclun lettuce, 2 ounces of fresh mozzarella, 1 medium sliced tomato, 2 tablespoons of fresh basil and olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar, 1/2 ounce of grated parmesan, and 2/3 ounces of Italian bread (390 calories).

Or you could just peruse the McDonald’s “Favorites Under 400” menu, complete with cheeseburgers, chicken McNuggets, premium bacon ranch salads, and a variety of McMuffins enough to fulfill six meals. The point is, not all calories are created equal, and if you’re eating six meals a day to lose or maintain weight, be wary of your food selection. Portions matter, but when it comes to adding up your breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, at the end of the day it’s the types of foods you ate that count for more than how many you ate.