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There Is No Biological Reason to Eat Three Meals a Day -- So Why Do We Do It?

For most of history, meals were very variable.

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And it tended to be eaten in daylight -- not because eating earlier was considered healthier, but because cooking, consuming and cleaning up is difficult in the dark or by firelight.

"People who were not rich tried to get all their meals eaten before dark. After electricity was discovered, initially only the rich could afford it," Freedman says. "From that point onward, one mark of being rich became how late you ate. Eating way after dark because you could afford electric lights was a mark of high status, urbanity and class."

Eating late -- or at random times, or more or less than thrice daily -- also reflects one's distance from the two main forces that standardized three squares in America: conventional work schedules and traditional family life. 

Throughout most of the 20th century, most workers could eat only at specific times. 

"When that factory whistle blew at five o'clock, it was time to go home and be fed. But now all kinds of Americans are eating later and later because they work longer hours than they used to, or because their hours are now more flexible. We are very much losing the three-meals-a-day model, thanks to grazing and thanks to different members of a household having different schedules, and to the fact that the kids might not want to eat what their parents are eating." 

The idea of children being allowed to choose their own meals and mealtimes would have been shocking a few decades ago, when "Eat what's on your plate" and "Eat your peas or no dessert" were family dinner-table mantras. But the family dinner table is verging on the obsolescent. Which came first: the dissolution of the standard nuclear family or the dissolution of three meals a day?

"American parents have a particular kind of guilt about the disappearance of family meals," Freedman says. Perhaps for good reason: A recent University of Minnesota study found that habitual shared family meals improve nutrition, academic performance and interpersonal skills and reduce the risk of eating disorders. 

Electronic devices are also undermining the three-meals model. They're at once entertainment centers, workspaces and almost-human companions. Their portability and nonstop availability let us eat whenever we like without having to stop working, without having to be bored, and without having to feel that we are eating alone.

"The disappearance of family meals antedates the invention of hand-held electronic devices," Freedman says. "It was not initiated by them, but it is exacerbated by them. These days, even if everyone's sitting around a table together, it's not clear that they're all paying attention."

The three-meals model is also being fought by the food industry.

"The food industry wants you to buy more food," thus it urges us to eat as much and as often as possible. It's an easy sell, "because Americans have always liked snacks."

A snack boom began in the mid-20th century and hasn't stopped. Thriving through a wrecked economy, the global snack industry is predicted to be worth $330 billion by 2015. In the US alone, retail sales of packaged snacks increased from $56 billion to $64 billion between 2006 and 2010, and are expected to reach $77 billion by 2015. 

The blurred borderline between snacks and meals has changed everything.

"The long-term effect is that any time of day has become a time to eat. The decline of three meals a day and the rise of snacks are related, although I wouldn't say there's a direct causal relationship," Freedman says.

Another food-industry strategy is the creation of food niches, based on age, ethnicity, gender, lifestyle and locale. A few decades ago, everyone ate the same foods. 

 
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