Too often it is acceptable to have an idea of why something works, and then use this to sell it without any testing or proof.
There is no experiment that asserts validity.
And thus many of the accepted truths in the nutrition and training field fall within this, and they persist due to habit. I think that is ludicrous, I think times are changing and I want to push this change. In reality:
Trouble is it seems kinda logical to have many meals in the day if building muscle is our goal. And traditionally bodybuilders have been under a strict eat every 2-3 hours rule, to ensure constant supply of nutrients to our muscles.
By eating more often you not only provide our muscles with fuel, you stoke the metabolic fire and avoid spikes in our blood sugar levels amongst other benefits. While that all sounds great, and on the surface I see the potential logic, but often the premise is flawed, lets look at each claim in further detail.
Meal Timing Myth No.1
Eating More Often Spikes your Metabolism
OK so where does this claim come from, because every claim has a source. When we eat we do in fact increase our metabolism, through something called The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF). TEF equates to the energy burnt to digest the food, yup, we don’t ingest something and get 100% of the energy, some gets lost in digestion (around 10%). So the thought was by eating more often, we are stimulating more TEF, thus increasing our metabolism. Mini-meals ftw.
However, TEF is directly proportional to the amount you’re eating. This is where the above argument loses its standing.
When two people consume identical diets, no matter how many meals they eat, the amount burnt in TEF is the same. So when diets are matched studies have shown no differences in expenditure between nibbling and gorging. It becomes another one of those situations where people miss the forest for the trees, because when you focus on the bigger picture, the entire diet over the long-term, there is no difference.
Meal Timing Myth No.2
Skipping Breakfast Promotes Fat Gain
Hang on, I heard if you skip breakfast you don’t ignite your metabolism, and if you don’t do that you’ll burn fewer calories and gain fat.
Intermittent fasting, in which you go through periods of typically 16 hours of no food has destroyed this argument. Our metabolism doesn’t operate that quickly:
Whether you eat 3 meals or 11 meals, when diets are matched, there is no difference in metabolic rate. Any effects of meal pattern on the regulation of our body weight are mediated through effects on the food intake side of the energy balance equation. Increasing the number of meals in hope of boosting your metabolic rate is a total waste of time.
Meal Timing Myth No.3
Blood Sugar Levels Crash Without Frequent Meals
This claim again on surface again seems very logical, that if we want to keep stable energy levels, we need to be grazing constantly. Feeding our bodies little and often, to keep a nice flow of energy coming in. Further to that, surely eating frequently means we avoid getting hungry too. Again, that all makes sense on the surface, so lets delve into it.
Contrary to the above, our bodies actually regulate our blood sugar levels incredibly well. You know what our bodies love? Homeostasis. Whether it’s our body fat, body temperature or blood sugar levels, our body is extremely well adept at keeping them tightly bound to a strict range.
Assuming you are perfectly healthy we don’t see our blood sugar levels climb and sink like a crazy yoyo. In fact more recent studies done on younger fit and healthy subjects have shown them to have greater blood sugar control on 3 as opposed to 6 meals, go figure.
Meal Timing Myth No.4
You Go Catabolic Without Frequent Protein Intakes
Surely if we want to maintain or grow muscle, and protein is the key to this, we need a constant supply of it. If we go for hours without, won’t our bodies start eating away at our hard-earned muscle?
Right so the thinking is we are better off having say 30g of protein split into 6 meals as opposed to 60g split into 3 meals. Because, we want a constant supply of aminos acids to not lose muscle. This misses something quite important, and that is digestion speed. You eat more, it takes longer to digest. After a high protein meal amino acids are released slowly into your bloodstream. A typical meal takes 5-6 hours to get digested. So if you have a big breakfast at 7am, and lunch at 12am, you’re actually still digesting breakfast. So much for starving your muscles of nutrients.
The only time protein frequency shows to make any difference with this is when protein intake is inadequate. In cases where the person isn’t getting enough protein (1g per pound or so) a higher frequency of feedings can help spare lean body mass.
So the body does not trigger a hormonal cascade to signal starvation if it goes without food for hours, in fact it copes well with this. The only time a ‘starvation response’ really kicks in is after 3-4 days of very low calories.
Meal Timing Myth No.5
You Can Only Digest A Certain Amount of Protein
The thought is that our bodies can only digest a certain amount of grams of protein at once, the rest gets wasted. Thus we are better off eating smaller amounts more frequently.
So we know our ancestors were hunter gatherers, they went through times of feast and famine. They certainly had no problem eating a tonne of meat at once. When you eat more protein, it takes longer to digest and be used. That is about as complex as it gets. A standard meal is still being digested 5-6 hours later, that means amino acids are still being released into the bloodstream and absorbed by our muscles.
Summary & Practical Application
Point: Total nutritional intake (Macronutrients) by the end of the day will dictate 99% of your results.
Application: Rather than focussing on a given number of meals, focus on total intake.
That’s as far as it goes guys, there is no special benefits or horrible downsides from eating more or less often. Focus on your overall nutritional intake for the day, make that suit you and your goals, and then eat the number of meals that suits your preferences and fits within your overall nutritional requirements.
In future, I will take a look at those marginal gains, that 1% of results left for you to grab. Because, there is more too it than just total nutritional intake, just for most, it isn’t worth thinking about.
Need help with working out your nutrition, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to help you out.
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- Taylor MA1, Garrow JS. Compared with nibbling, neither gorging nor a morning fast affect short-term energy balance in obese patients in a chamber calorimeter. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 Apr;25(4):519-28.
- Bellisle F1, McDevitt R, Prentice AM. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70.
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