1. Meal Frequency: Why it DOES Matter
“Forget about meal frequency man, it doesn’t matter.”
What a turn around we’ve had in the fitness and nutrition industry in the last few years.
I remember 6 years ago, when I was starting out in personal training, the advice I (and 99% of my fellow fit pros) would spout on a regular basis was –
“You’re better off eating smaller meals every 2 to 3 hours to boost your metabolism.”
It didn’t matter if your goals were fat loss or muscle gain, small frequent meals were better than bigger, infrequent ones. Not only did we say this, we valued this above so much else.
I know that if I was talking to someone about their diet, I’d probably start with something along the lines of “no junk food” followed up by “eat protein at every meal” and would throw the meal frequency advice in third.
In just a few short years though, there’s been a massive change.
It’s not that suddenly, meal frequency isn’t a factor, it’s just that dogma regarding meal frequency has died out, and people far, far better at reading research than those writing for bodybuilding magazines have come to the forefront of the nutrition world and shed light on the whole meal frequency debacle.
2. The Misunderstanding of TEF
Where did the idea that small, frequent meals boost your metabolism come from?
TEF (the Thermic Effect of Food) is the process by which your body burns calories through digesting food.
Every time you eat, your body burns calories in breaking down and digesting what you’re eating. Therefore, the notion started that the more often you ate, the more frequently TEF would rise, and the more calories you’d burn.
Higher calorie burn = faster fat loss.
Makes sense, right? So why is it wrong?
3. It’s All Relative
TEF has little to do with how often you eat, as it’s relative to the calorie content of a meal.
If you say the TEF or calorie burn of each meal you eat is 10%. (This is probably relatively accurate, as the TEF of protein is 25-30%, while the TEF of carbohydrate and fat is 6-8% and 2-3% respectively.) (1)
Every time you eat a meal, you burn 10% of the calories consumed through digestion.
We’ll take someone who has a calorie intake of 2,700 each day.
Here’s how their calorie burn from TEF would look following different meal frequencies –
6 meals of 450 calories each = 45 calories burned per meal.
45 x 6 = 270 calories burned each day
4 meals of 675 calories each = 67.5 calories burned per meal.
67.5 x 4 = 270 calories burned each day
2 meals of 1,350 calories each = 135 calories burned per meal.
135 x 2 = 270 calories burned each day
No matter what meal frequency they follow, their calorie burn from TEF will always be 270. The same applies for whatever calorie intake and meal frequency you choose.
So that’s it then. End of the article.
Meal frequency doesn’t matter.
Or does it?
4. The Satiety Factor
The beauty of flexible dieting is that it’s not a system or a set of rules. It’s merely a way of eating that can be employed year-round and tweaked to match your goals and preferences.
As much as the science behind nutrition matters, the phrase “find what works for you” also rings true.
The meal frequency an individual feels that they function best on can vary greatly from person to person.
For instance, you may actually feel a lot more energetic and satiated when following the traditional bodybuilding advice of eating every 2 to 3 hours. If that’s the case, it’s not “wrong” to do this, provided you’re getting results from it.
Likewise, if like many, you prefer to employ fasting windows, either because it fits your schedule, or because you don’t feel too great training after eating, then go ahead and use fasting.
Whether or not these practices are optimal doesn’t matter so much, provided you’re happy with your progress.
5. Introducing Protein Frequency
While meal frequency may not matter in terms of TEF, calorie burn and metabolism, the frequency at which you consume protein may have an impact on body composition.
Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is the building up of new proteins within the muscle cell, ie. muscle growth.
To get maximum growth, MPS needs to be kept high.
The requires semi-frequent doses of protein.
According to research from Dr. Layne Norton, consuming a meal containing adequate protein and adequate leucine every 4 to 6 hours is optimal for maintaining a high MPS. Any longer than this and MPS appears to drop, while more frequent doses of protein do not seem to have any beneficial response.
Each meal should contain around 4g of leucine. To see what that looks like in terms of actual food (2).
Therefore, it appears that fasting protocols that suggest going for more than 6 hours at a time without eating may have a negative impact on MPS levels. This could be rectified through leucine supplementation, however.
6. The Anabolic Window
The myth of this magical post-workout anabolic window, in which you must consume fast-acting protein and carbohydrates has largely been debunked.
That being said, workout nutrition still matters.
In “Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?” researchers Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld investigated the effects of post-workout nutrition on performance and body composition.
They concluded that
“high-quality protein dosed at 0.4–0.5 g/kg of LBM at both pre- and post-exercise is a simple, relatively fail-safe general guideline that reflects the current evidence showing a maximal acute anabolic effect of 20–40 g”
“Due to the transient anabolic impact of a protein-rich meal and its potential synergy with the trained state, pre- and post-exercise meals should not be separated by more than approximately 3–4 hours, given a typical resistance training bout lasting 45–90 minutes. If protein is delivered within particularly large mixed-meals (which are inherently more anticatabolic), a case can be made for lengthening the interval to 5–6 hours.”(3)
Once again, it’s unlikely that missing your post-workout meal or even training fasted will make or break your progress, but it does seem that to be on the safe side, considering meal frequency in terms of eating either a protein-based meal, or a mixed meal both before and after exercise will certainly have no negative consequences, and may well be beneficial.
Additionally, one further consideration for athletes or those training twice a day is glycogen replenishment.
Aragon and Schoenfeld concluded that carbohydrate intake around exercise was a gray area. That being said, if you intend on performing long, or endurance-based sessions, or wish to train again within a number of hours, eating carb-rich meals around your session would likely help with increasing energy levels.
7. What About Personal Preference?
Leaving science to one side for a moment, one of the most critical factors in determining meal frequency is what you prefer.
Personal preference is an underrated component in many diets and a huge reason for why so many people fail to reach their goals. The plan doesn’t suit their needs and schedule, and so they can’t comply with it.
No matter what dietary component you’re discussing, your personal preferences should always play a role, and this is certainly the case with meal frequency.
While eating a protein-rich breakfast may be optimal in terms of muscle protein synthesis, you may find you feel sick as a dog first thing in the morning, and can’t even stomach a protein shake. Perhaps your calories are low, and you prefer saving more for later in the day.
In this instance, provided you can still perform at your best in the gym and are getting results that you’re happy with, skipping breakfast would not be a massive issue.
Likewise, many flexible dieters do prefer to eat more carbohydrates in an evening meal. Once again, this can be a useful dieting strategy. It gives you something to look forward to when you’re battling with hunger and cravings mid-afternoon, and a high-carb meal before bed can often aid sleep.
If you had a tough training session at lunchtime, then perhaps eating more carbohydrates in the 2 to 3 hours following training would have been optimal, but if you only have 150 grams of carbs to play with and want to save 75 grams for your last meal, this would mean going lighter on carbs PWO.
8. Meal Frequency: The Wrap Up
While the science may give clues as to what is technically “optimal” in terms of meal frequency, this is one area where the definition of “optimal” is variable.
You need to find the meal frequency that’s best for you. This means making sure you:
- Feel full and satiated as much as possible
- Don’t feel bloated or unwell from cramming down too much food in one go
- Lose fat as quickly as possible while maintaining maximum muscle mass on a cut
- Build muscle as quickly as possible while keeping body fat to a minimum during a gaining phase
- Perform at your best in the gym
- Can function on a day to day basis and maintain concentration.
- This is one scenario where the science matters, but n=1 experimentation shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Mike Samuels is a coach based in Southampton, UK. He specializes in training clients for fat loss and strength performance. He loves lifting heavy stuff, eating good food and drinking great coffee. You can connect on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/HealthyLivingHeavyLifting?focus_composer=true&ref_type=bookmark