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Three Meals a Day: Fuelling Up for Healthy Living 

You’re probably familiar with the belief that you should have three meals a day. But does how often you eat or what you eat matter more? Here’s what TCM says about eating three meals a day.

Notebook with “breakfast”, “lunch”, and “dinner” and mealtimes written.

You may have heard the saying, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), eating two to three meals a day that are nutrient-dense, not skipping breakfast, and avoiding large late-night meals all relate to good health. It follows the TCM belief that eating during the day and fasting at night maintains a balance with your body’s meridians and body clock. 

Does it sound confusing? Not to worry, we break down which foods TCM recommends to eat and the ideal times to have each meal. 

Each Meal Should Be Nutritionally Balanced  

Plate of rice with roasted meat and colourful cooked vegetables.
Each of the three meals you eat in a day should be balanced and nutrient dense.

Here’s a refresher on the different nutrient groups that your body needs and what foods to avoid every day. 

Macronutrients:

  • Carbohydrates (main source of energy) from whole-grain sources
  • Protein (maintains and builds muscle mass) from lean protein sources such as eggs, white meats, and soy
  • Fats (building blocks of cellular membranes) from unsaturated sources such as avocado, olive oil, and oily fish

Micronutrients:

  • Vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and fibre from fresh fruits and vegetables 
  • Calcium (for bone development and prevention of osteoporosis) from dairy, cheese, yoghurt, plant-based milk, nuts like almonds, and edible fish bones like canned sardines

Foods to avoid:

Have Breakfast to Start Your Engine 

Start your morning with a warm glass of water to rehydrate after a night of sleeping. After about 20 to 30 minutes of activity, your digestive system is ready to receive some fuel.

Research shows that those who regularly eat breakfast are healthier and less likely to gain excess weight. So don’t skip breakfast!  

In TCM, the optimal time for breakfast is between 7am and 9am as this is when the stomach is most active.

Here’s an example of a well-balanced breakfast: 

  • Wholegrain toast with avocado slices  
  • Hard-boiled or scrambled eggs 
  • Yoghurt with some banana slices and berries 

Here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • You’ve just woken up from a long fast, so you’ll need energy. Carbohydrates should make up about 60% of your breakfast.  
  • Avoid cold breakfast meals and raw foods like salad and cold fruits. TCM advises that it’s best to start your day with warm foods. 
  • Eat calcium-rich foods in the morning rather than later in the day to avoid the accumulation of harmful by-products. 
Woman holds a clear bowl of salad and a fork in one hand.
Avoid too much raw food, especially in the morning, as it can burden your digestive system.

Replenish with Lunch and Dinner 

Your lunch and dinner don’t need to be as heavy as your breakfast. But don’t skip meals thinking your breakfast will be enough to sustain you through the day.

Between 11am and 1pm is a good time for lunch. This is when the Heart is most active, pumping nutrients to all parts of your body. Meanwhile, dinner is best taken between 5pm and 7pm when the Kidneys are at their peak.

Remember this nutritional ratio for your lunch or dinner plate: 

  • 1/2 vegetables and fruits 
  • 1/4 healthy carbohydrates like rice or quinoa 
  • 1/4 lean protein like grilled chicken or tofu 

Here are some things to keep in mind: 

  • Lightly sauté or boil vegetables rather than eating them raw. Overtaxing the stomach to work extra hard digesting cold foods can deplete your qi (vital life force). 
  • Eat a “rainbow” of fruits and vegetables every day for a wider spectrum of phytonutrients
  • Apply the same nutrition ratios even when you’re eating out. Many restaurants are health-conscious, so you’ll be spoilt for choice. 
  • Consider ending your eating window in the evening with some probiotic foods like yoghurt. This helps your gastrointestinal tract make the most of its maintenance mode while you sleep. 
Table at a restaurant filled with various plates of food surrounded by four people having lunch or dinner together.
If one of your three meals a day involves eating out, include all the needed nutrients on your plate.

By 7pm, your digestive system begins winding down so try not to eat two to three hours before bedtime to avoid burdening it. Hit the sheets no later than 11pm as this is when the gallbladder is most active. You need rest to let your body build energy for the next day. 

Eating three meals a day is less about obsessing over the frequency, and more about balanced nutrition. A balanced diet alongside regular exercise, adequate rest, and stress management are the real ingredients to healthy living. 

Ready to get your nutrition in order and fuel properly? Check out the topics we’ve linked in this article for more tips on eating well!  

This is an adaptation of the article “三餐这样吃才正确!”, which first appeared on the Health123 website.

References

  1. Multi-Disciplinary Publishing Institute (MDPI) – Nutrients. 2019. The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting. [online] [Accessed 8 February 2023]  
  2. Multi-Disciplinary Publishing Institute (MDPI) – Nutrients. 2020. Defining a Healthy Diet: Evidence for the Role of Contemporary Dietary Patterns in Health and Disease. [online] [Accessed 8 February 2023]  
  3. Cell Metabolism. 2022. Timing of daily calorie loading affects appetite and hunger responses without changes in energy metabolism in healthy subjects with obesity. [online] [Accessed 8 February 2023] 
  4. VinMec International Hospital. Why shouldn’t you take calcium in the afternoon or evening? [online] [Accessed 8 February 2023] 
  5. Harvard T. Chan School of Public Health. Calcium. [Accessed 8 February 2023] 

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