Meals are good, and snacking is bad. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and if you eat dinner with your family, you will keep your girlish figureand your kids will be healthier. Taking a lunch break will make you succeed at your job.
Okay, now forget all that. Because as it turns out, the concept of three square meals a day has practically zero to do with your actual metabolic needs. And our dogmatic adherence to breakfast, lunch, and dinner might actually be making us sick.
Historian Abigail Carroll, author of the book Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, explained to me that the the thrice-daily eating schedule goes back at least as far as the Middle Ages in Europe. When European settlers got to America, they also imported their meal habits: a light meal—maybe cold mush and radishes—in the morning, a heavier, cooked one midday, and a third meal similar to the first one later in the day. They observed that the eating schedule of the native tribes was less rigid—the volume and timing of their eating varied with the seasons. Sometimes, when food was scarce, they fasted. The Europeans took this as "evidence that natives were uncivilized," Carroll explained to me in an email. "Civilized people ate properly and boundaried their eating, thus differentiating themselves from the animal kingdom, where grazing is the norm." (So fascinated were Europeans with tribes' eating patterns, notes Carroll, that they actually watched Native Americans eat "as a form of entertainment.")
The three daily meals that the settlers brought evolved with Americans' lifestyles. As people became more prosperous, they added meat to breakfast and dinner. After the Industrial Revolution, when people began to work away from home, the midday meal became a more casual affair, and the cooked meal shifted to the end of the day, when workers came home. The one thing that did not change was the overall amount of food that people ate—despite the fact that they had largely abandoned the active lifestyles of the farm in favor of sedentary ones in cities and suburbs. "People were still eating these giant country breakfasts," says Carroll. Soon, doctors reported that more of their patients were suffering from indigestion.