Thankfully, we’ve kind of gone past the days of –
“You gotta eat 6 meals per day, bro.
Keep that metabolism boosted, bro.
Don’t want to lose muscle, bro.”
Okay, some guys and girls are still convinced that six to eight meals per day is the holy grail of fat loss nutrition, and get stressed to high heaven if they go more than three hours without eating, thinking that they’ll go catabolic.
But on the whole, the fitness industry and gym rats worldwide have chilled out a lot when it comes to meal frequency.
Funny thing is, we’re not too good at avoiding extremes, and so the pendulum’s swung very quickly from the standard advice of eating every few hours, and veered off in the other direction of a very irregular meal frequency, with plenty of bodybuilders, physique athletes and just general training enthusiasts now practicing some type of fasting.
We now have whole movements of intermittent fasters (IF-ers) and books and programs based around the concept of going for hours and hours, or sometimes even whole days, without eating.
So what’s the score?
Is an irregular, sporadic meal frequency the secret to unlocking a new level of leanness and controlling body fat on a bulk, or just another fad that makes everything much more complicated than it needs to be?
The First Rule of Meal Frequency
The first rule of meal frequency is that your daily calorie and macronutrient intake matter far more than how often you eat.
Okay, that’s not a rule about meal frequency per se, but no amount of tweaking your meal timing can override the lack of a calorie deficit when you’re trying to lose fat.
IF proponents argue that the hormonal shifts during periods of feasting and fasting can put you in a favorable fat loss state, but that’s never going to negate calorie balance. So before you mess around with your meal timing, make sure your calories and macros are in check.
Why Meal Frequency DOESN’T Matter
One of the big arguments for throwing meal frequency out the window is because the idea that more frequent feeding raises your metabolic rate has been proven to be false.
While there is an increase in TEF (Thermic Effect of Food) after eating, which relates to a bump in metabolic rate, this rise is directly proportional to the amount of calories eaten.
The TEF for each macronutrient is different (protein comes in at around 25-30%, carbs at 6-8% and fats at 2-3%  ) so if you eat a mixed meal where macro quantities are roughly even, you’ll probably burn roughly 10% of the calories in digestion.
If your daily calorie target is 2,000 for instance, here’s how it would work out:
- 1 x 2,000 calorie meal = 1 x 200 calories burned through TEF
- 4 x 500 calorie meals = 4 x 50 calories burned through TEF
- 10 x 200 calorie meals = 10 x 20 calories burned through TEF
The overall result is exactly the same – a 200 calorie burn from TEF over the course of the day.
Additionally, the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s stand on meal frequency states that –
“Increasing meal frequency does not appear to favorably change body composition in sedentary populations.
Increased meal frequency does not appear to significantly enhance diet induced thermogenesis, total energy expenditure or resting metabolic rate .”
All Aboard the Fasting Bus
Given the above, and the fact that some research shows a positive correlation between increased life expectancy and fasting , a whole pro-fasting movement has been born.
Plus, let’s face it – it’s kinda cool.
Being able to brag about the fact you eat huge meals, or watching other peoples’ looks of shock and awe as you tuck into a monstrous post-fast meal can be funny and pretty satisfying.
On first glance, it seems that fasting has incredible effects on growth hormone levels too. Kerndt et. al studied a patient who underwent a 40-day fast, and found his growth hormone levels increased by 1,250% . A second study from Hartman et. al observed a 5-fold increase in HGH following a 2-day fast .
This seems great, and we do know that growth hormone levels play a role in building muscle and burning fat. Thing is, transient increases in hormone levels like this tend to have minimal to no impact on your physique. Plus, unless these levels were being elevated to the supra-physiological range, it’s very unlikely any benefits would be seen.
It also begs the question – if fasting’s so good for growth hormone levels, why not just not eat. Period?
While that may be a little facetious, it’s also true. A calorie surplus, adequate protein intake and a training program that focuses on progressive overload is anabolic. Skipping meals is not.
By looking more closely at the data, and not just taking study abstracts at face value, we can see that many claims associated with fasting, or grossly reduced meal frequencies don’t really stand up.
Protein Frequency Definitely Matters
While meal frequency may not be as critical as once thought, protein frequency has far more importance.
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is a driving force behind muscular adaptations, and is boosted when you consume protein, or, more specifically, the amino acid leucine.
Ideally, you’ll hit your leucine threshold each meal (around 0.045-0.06 grams of leucine per kilogram of bodyweight) which maxes out muscle protein synthesis. This response only lasts around 5 hours though, meaning that after this it starts to drop back down, and by 6-hours post-protein, is back to virtually zero . Therefore, we can safely say that it’s a good idea to get adequate protein in every 4 to 6 waking hours, otherwise you risk sub-optimal MPS levels.
Frequency and Fullness
If you don’t eat, you get hungry. It’s hardly rocket science.
Anecdotally though, most people who try a more irregular meal frequency or incorporate periods of fasting tend to adapt pretty quickly, and find they do perfectly okay going several hours (or even up to a whole day) without eating. Most of the research seems to suggest that going to extremes with meal frequency can have a negative impact on perceived hunger levels and the desire to eat, whereas a middle ground (around 3 meals per day) is the sweet spot .
This is still largely personal preference though.
You might wake up every morning feeling ravenous, or you may feel sick as a dog for the first few hours, and be unable to eat anything.
The same goes for frequency through the rest of the day. Some people claim they simply can’t function without regular meals or snacks, whereas others can go almost a whole day and forget to eat.
In this respect, it’s likely best to keep an eye on how you feel, and what works for you in terms of adhering to your diet.
If a reduced meal frequency makes you prone to binging – increase the frequency. If eating little and often makes you even hungrier, take a step back and reduce the number of meals or snacks you have.
What About the Anabolic Window?
We all know the anabolic window is a myth.
There’s no magical 30-minute period post-workout where all the food you eat is shuttled towards pure muscle growth, and if you leave it longer than a half hour to eat post-training, it’s certainly not a wasted workout.
That doesn’t mean workout nutrition is completely redundant though.
While it’s far from being the most important factor in losing fat or building muscle, it does make sense to eat something with protein and carbs pre-workout to give you energy, and similar again post-workout to aid recovery.
There’s no set amount or time limit on this, but the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests a dose of 0.4-0.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight both pre- and post-workout, separated by 3 to 4 hours . Carbs are dependent on goals and the type of training you’re doing, but unless your macros are so low that you’d rather save your carbs until later in the day, it makes sense to include them in both meals as well.
With a severely reduced meal frequency, you do put yourself at risk of sub-par performance in the gym, and can potentially sabotage some adaptive responses afterwards.
More Than Just Macros
If you’re going to worry about just two things with your nutrition, make those things calories and macros.
By hitting these, you’re going to ensure that you reach your body composition goals. Fortunately though, most of us have the capacity to focus on more than just these, and can take into account the smaller details too, such as meal frequency.
There’s no black and white in terms of what’s a good frequency and what’s a bad one, but we can be fairly sure in saying that there’s no need for a super high frequency (more than 6 meals per day) or a low frequency (less than 3 meals.)
Despite the popularity in both eating every few hours and fasting, these approaches may well be sub-optimal, and certainly don’t provide any real physiological benefit.
A very high frequency might make sense for those training multiple times per day, or on a very high calorie intake, while fasting or a low frequency could potentially help with dieters on low macros who want a smaller eating window.
Unless you’re got a particular preference for going to the extreme though, you’re best off sticking with what works – eating every 4 to 6 hours, not going too long without protein, and not buying into any fads.
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- Kerndt, PR. “Fasting: The History, Pathophysiology And Complications.”. The Western Journal of Medicine 137.5 (1982): 379-399. Print.
- Hartman, M. L. “Augmented Growth Hormone (GH) Secretory Burst Frequency And Amplitude Mediate Enhanced GH Secretion During A Two-Day Fast In Normal Men”. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 74.4 (1992): 757-765. Web.
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