Do More Meals Stoke The Metabolic Fire? Does Fewer Meals Lead To Muscle Loss? Here's Why Meal Frequency Doesn't Matter That Much
The notion that increased meal frequency boosts metabolism and stokes the metabolic fire has been around for a while. It's part of fitness folklore. And no doubt, it's been advice you've either followed, or been told is gospel.
And on face value, it seems pretty logical. Eating and digestion requires energy, which means a boost in metabolism. So if you do it more frequently, then your metabolism should sky-rocket. Couple that with keeping a lid on hunger, through increased snacking, and as long a you're in a calorie deficit, progress should be faster.
The same goes for building and preserving muscle. Bodybuilders have been eating to the schedule of a new born baby, since the dawn of time. Cramming protein down their neck to avoid the dreaded muscle breakdown.
But what's the truth? Does meal frequency really matter this much? Or is it all a little overblown and not worth thinking about?
Here's what you're going to discover in this article.
- Why the old school view of meal frequency is dead.
- When meal frequency NEVER matters and when it MIGHT matter.
You'll also find an optimal, evidence-based, strategy for building muscle too. So if you like the sound of THAT, it's time for you to scroll down.
The Old School View Of Meal Frequency Is Dead
'Little and often' and 'stoking the metabolic fire' are phrases I'm sure you've heard before. But these long-standing buzz words and phrases are simply myths with no true basis in fact.
But where did these myths come from in the first place? Surely, bro-scientists didn't just create the idea out of thin air?
While maybe not created out of thin air, it's certainly rarified. You see, these commonly held beliefs have spawned from a variety of observational studies, creating associations between meal frequency and a healthier lifestyle,
Either that, or the classic utterances of, "...It worked for Sandra, and she lost loads of weight" and "Joe at the gym said it...and he's massive" are to blame.
But you're not interested in what Sandra and Joe have to say. You want some real evidence, right?
And that's exactly what I've got for you.
3 Meals vs 6 Meals
Here's a scenario for you. Two groups of people eat to the same level of energy restriction for 8 weeks. One group over three meals, the other over six. Who loses more weight?
If the bro-scientists are to be believed, the group with higher meal frequency should have a metabolic fire burning so strong, the fat should be melting faster than a protein bar on a BBQ. But you've probably guessed that wasn't the case.
In fact, there was no significant difference between either group, in terms of weight and fat loss. "We conclude that increasing meal frequency does not promote greater body weight loss."
Still not convinced? Still have your doubts? I find your lack of faith disturbing. So it sounds like you need another dose of nutritional science. Here's the second force choke for meal frequency bull shit.
Nibbling vs Gorging
Are you a nibbler or a gorger?
Do you like to graze on food throughout the day, like a sheep munching through fields of grass? Or do you prefer to have bigger, more epic meals that leave you feeling stuffed and unable to move (unless there's cake on offer, then you get a second wind).
Well, it's good news either way. Because the nutritional boffins have shown that either approach can help you lose weight (if you maintain a deficit, obviously). Concluding there is "no difference between nibbling and gorging."
So does meal frequency matter? It's not looking good so far. But is there EVER an occasion where it matters?
Does Meal Frequency EVER Matter?
There's rarely a one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to nutrition. Your goal might not be one of weight loss. Maybe you want to build muscle, increase strength, or learn the ways of The Force, so you can be a Jedi, like your father.
So does meal frequency matter in ANY of these scenarios? Let's look at higher meal frequency first.
More Meals For More Muscle?
If your goal is to build muscle, then meal frequency does matter. Specifically, protein frequency. You see, when it comes to building muscle, the goal is to achieve positive net protein balance. In English, that means Muscle Protein Synthesis (the building of new muscle) should exceed Muscle Protein Breakdown. Therefore, managing your protein intake across the day is the most optimal way to achieve this.
In addition, you'll need to spike Leucine (an amino acid crucial to the muscle building process) multiple times, and particularly within the first 3 hours post-training. This promotes positive protein balance and is likely to be more beneficial for extracting the most benefit from training.
The Optimal Protein Frequency Strategy For Building Muscle
With the proliferation of high protein diets, it's my guess you're consuming c. 1.8-2.0g/kg of protein per day, which is good. But how about we take that from good to great? Here's your optimal protein frequency strategy for maximum gains.
- 4-6 protein servings per day.
- 2-3 main meals x 0.4/0.5g/kg.
- A post workout shake x 0.3g/kg
- Large pre-bed protein meal x 0.5-0.6g/kg
Simply follow that strategy and you'll be all set to make maximum gains, be they biceps or booty.
But What About Meal Frequency For Fat Loss, Muscle Retention, And Health?
Nope. It doesn't matter at all.
"Not even for muscle loss? This PT told me..."
Your PT is wrong. And here's why.
Increasing meal frequency won't impact muscle loss. The idea your body is going to start gnawing away at your bicep if you miss your feeding window every 2 hours, is nonsense. As long as you have adequate protein throughout the day, you'll keep the precious lean muscle you worked so hard for.
So tell your PT to read this article for some more up-to-date facts.
Fewer Meals For Fat Loss And Health?
Because I want you to have ALL the facts, not just the cherry-picked data to please my own agenda, there may be some small benefits to fewer meals. Although, as you'll see, it's nothing to get excited about. But let's look at it anyway, if only for shits and giggles.
There is research to show a small benefit to reduced meal frequency for fat loss (albeit with a significant increased hunger), mainly driven by an increase in TEF (Thermic Effect Of Food), ie the energy using to digest and absorb a meal.
But before you go racing off and start adjusting your meal frequency, it might not be worth your while. Because, difference might be as little as an additional 16 kcals over 5 hours. Which is about the same as 2 almonds. So, basically fuck all, right? And besides, going back and forth to the kitchen to prepare more meals, probably burns more than 16 kcals anyway.
So don't get lost in the detail of meal frequency for the sake of a few calories here and there. Pay attention to the iceberg in front of you, not the pebbles on the beach.
The Bottom Line On Meal Frequency
Greater meal frequency doesn't stoke the metabolic fire and lead to significantly greater fat loss. However, there is some benefit for building muscle. Ultimately, it comes down to what you can adhere to.
The importance of meal frequency is overplayed. If the goal is anything other than specifically building muscle, simply don't worry about it. Focus on the important things, such as overall calorie intake. Adopting an approach to meal frequency that suits your lifestyle, food preferences, and the way you like to enjoy food, will always be the right one.
Your Next Step To Mastering Nutrition And Shaping A Leaner, Healthier, Stronger Body
Here’s what to do next to get on the fast track to a leaner, healthier, stronger body. Simply click the link below and I’ll send you my Lean Life Kickstarter Pack. In it you’ll find a free 4 week beginner’s training programme (complete with exercise videos and a workout tracker), a guide on calculating your calories, plus so much more.
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But for now, all I’ll say is… Keep living the Lean Life and I’ll see you soon.