Meal frequency is a much debated topic in the fitness and nutrition industries which started about 60 years ago and still continues to this day. Gyms worldwide echo with the sounds of trainees arguing over how many meals to eat in order to obtain maximum results! Have you ever heard that eating 6 meals a day speeds up your metabolism? Or that your body can only absorb a certain amount of protein in a single meal? Perhaps you’re more familiar with the story of how eating every 2-3 hours stops your body going into a catabolic state thus preserving all of your hard earned muscle?
There are many claims surrounding meal frequency but how does one navigate the minefield of misinformation? With FitOverFat’s help, of course! Outlined below you will find information on how many daily meals you need to achieve your fitness goals optimally.
In order to understand where you are going, you must first know where you have been. Studies and experiments into meal frequency have been going on for quite some time. Fifty to sixty years ago most studies were conducted on animals, rats especially. These studies showed that higher meal frequency was of benefit to the test subject. This was all well and good for the rats but for us humans it didn’t really give us any clear or conclusive data that increased meal frequency was of benefit. We are not rats, and our metabolisms are not the same. Years passed and more studies regarding this topic were done, with a number of them eventually being done on humans. Before looking into recent data, there are a few more things that have to be said.
But athletes and body builders do it?
The biggest bodybuilders in the world tend to weigh in at around 250lbs and take in an enormous amount of calories, sometimes claiming to eat 6-8 meals per day! It is also not uncommon to hear of athletes having two or more training sessions per day and eating a high volume of meals to compliment their training and recovery. Considering this, you may think that it would be beneficial to eat 6 meals per day to achieve your fitness goals, be it fat loss or muscle gain. This is not entirely true.
Misinterpreting the data
Most recommendations of adopting a higher meal frequency are based on direct studies regarding the thermic effect of food. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the amount of energy expended above the resting metabolic rate due to the cost of processing food for use and storage. A commonly used estimate of the Thermic Effect of Food is about 10% of one’s caloric intake. By eating more frequently, you stimulate TEF more often, meaning you burn more calories, right? Wrong! Here’s what fitness guru Lyle McDonald had to say on the matter:
“Say we have two people, both eating the same 3000 calories per day from identical macronutrients. One eats 6 meals of 500 calories/meal while the other eats 3 meals of 1000 calories/meal and we’ll assume a TEF of 10%. So the first will have a TEF of 50 calories (10% of 500) 6 times a day. The second will have a TEF of 100 calories (10% of 1000 calories) 3 times a day. Well, 6×50 = 300 calories/day and 3×100 = 300 calories/day. As you can see, there is no difference.”
Looking at it correctly only proves that meal frequency does not affect one’s metabolism. Most recommendations of adopting a higher meal frequency are based on direct amount of energy expended above the resting metabolic rate due to the cost of processing food for use and storage.
If we look at the more recent studies being done on humans there are some that must be disregarded. The parameters and designs of these studies make their conclusions inapplicable to real world scenarios. With that being said however, there are also many fit for purpose based studies done with solid design using the appropriate set ups and controlled caloric intakes.
When participants are given identical, controlled caloric intakes with the only difference being meal frequency (3 meals versus 6 meals are the most commonly used frequencies in many studies), the outcome is always the same.
Fat is equally lost whether 3 or 6 meals are consumed. The only thing that made a difference was whether the subject was in a caloric deficit or not, meaning that they ate fewer calories than they expended.
Practical advice for fat loss
The most commonly used meal frequency is 3-4 meals per day with a snack or two in between the meals. My practical recommendation regarding meal frequency for fat loss is this:
Eat as many meals as you need to eat in order to reach your caloric and macronutrient intake goals.
If eating 6 or more meals per day makes you less hungry and lets you stay in caloric deficit, you should eat that many meals. If eating 3 meals per day makes you less hungry and lets you stay in caloric deficit, you should eat those 3 meals.
Practical advice for building muscles
“What about getting bigger?!” You may ask. Meal frequency for building muscles might be the same as for fat loss or it could be a whole different ball game. Losing fat requires dealing with hunger and building muscles requires you to find a way to get your caloric intake higher than your caloric expenditure. Rule number one is; be sure to have a caloric surplus when building muscles, since muscles cannot be built out of thin air. Eating at caloric surplus means that you have a lot of food to eat on a daily basis. For a small guy who works in a sedentary job, three to four meals might be the best choice, but for someone who is highly active and weighs a lot, five, six or even more meals might be necessary to reach your adequate caloric intake for the day.
I know that many of you have heard the myth that the body can only absorb 30 or so grams of protein per meal. This is a common misconception and could not be further from the truth. Recent data shows that the body utilizes as much protein as it needs (along with other macronutrients) and the digestive process will just take longer to accommodate the higher volume of food.
There is a limit to protein absorption from a single meal however and that limit is around what one needs daily, approximately 170grams of protein.
You will not go catabolic
Another common myth is that the body goes catabolic if you do not eat every two to three hours. This is also false. In reality, an average sized meal takes about five to six hours to digest and is still releasing nutrients into the bloodstream at this point. That means that you have to eat every five to six hours if you eat average sized meals; larger meals might take up to 8 hours to digest. Physiologically, you cannot possibly go catabolic if you do not eat for two to three hours.
Study dispelling long lasting myths
One study worth noting was done on bodybuilders in Norway that set out to check whether a diet of 6 small meals had an advantage over a diet of 3 large meals. The conclusion:
We found no beneficial effect of eating 6 meals a day compared to 3 meals a day as long as the total energy intake and the intake of nutrients is similar and above the requirements.
On the contrary we found indications in favor of 3 meals a day on both strength and muscle mass measurements in upper body.’ This suggests to us that larger meals might even have benefits over small ones.
If nothing else, what you should take away from this article is that:
Meeting your caloric and macronutrient needs each day is a far more important factor for both fat loss and muscle gain than any of the other variables.
Frequent eating does not speed up metabolism and does not directly impact fat loss. It may even have a negative impact for someone looking to build optimal amounts of muscle and strength.
Choose a meal frequency that fits your individual preferences and lifestyle because the fact is that, in regard to the frequency of the meals, the results will be the same.