“Eat small frequent meals to keep the metabolism firing.”
When I first started training, I was lead to believe that eating 6-8 meals a day (the more the better) was the key to maximizing muscle growth and fat-loss. So I went out to buy my first tub of protein and some meal replacement bars for on-the-go 24/7 muscle-building action (man was I pumped).
The months went by and I noticed my clothes getting tighter. I was getting big alright… but in all the wrong places. A former skinny guy, I was now officially skinny-fat. Training intensely 4-5 times a week and eating tons of protein (meticulously spaced 3 hours apart) just to look like shit? What happened?
A lot of things. I was eating way too much for my needs and keeping meal frequency deliberately high only exacerbated the issue. Looking back, I have to say this was the single biggest misstep in my 15 years of fitness.
But I don’t want you to take my word for it. Let’s look at the research. Is eating more often associated with any metabolic or performance advantages?
Meal Frequency and the Human Metabolism
In an effort to boost metabolic rate and avoid the notorious “starvation mode”, health conscious folks around the world have been keeping their Tupperware chicken and meal replacement shakes handy. But is there really any merit to this practice? Does keeping meal frequency high “stoke the metabolic fire” and help stabilize blood sugar levels? Will you waste away if you skip lunch?
In one of the most comprehensive studies on the subject, researchers compared the metabolic effects of 2 to 7 meals. Interestingly enough, there was no discernible difference between the two protocols (Bellisle et al, 1997).
According to the scientific data, going long stretches between meals does not impact your metabolism in any negative way. Not even 72 hours (!) without food will lower metabolic rate (Gjedsted et al, 2007). That’s right, even after 3 consecutive days of fasting (=no food) you won’t experience a decline in energy expenditure.
It’s a well researched fact that metabolic rate doesn’t drop with a lower meal frequency. But what about consciously “spiking” the metabolism by eating frequent small meals?
Contrary to popular belief, energy expenditure will actually increase in response to NOT eating (Zauner et al, 2000). In times of food deprivation your body will liberate additional resources to maximize your survival capacity. Many individuals (myself included) report feeling wide awake, energized and focused after going long stretches without food (i.e. skipping breakfast). Still think you have to eat every three hours to keep your metabolism firing?
Meal Frequency and Muscle Growth
Since it’s common practice for athletes to eat very frequently there has to be a measurable benefit to muscle growth and performance, right? … Right?
In another 12-week study, researchers looked at the effects of eating 3 versus 6 meals on body composition. And what do you know, the subjects on the low frequency protocol (3 meals) gained significantly more lean body mass than their grazing counterparts (Oyvind et al, 2007). Your mommy was right when she told you to eat up at lunch and avoid snacking between meals.
What about protein breakdown aka “starvation mode”?
The word “catabolism” instills a fear in the bodybuilding community unlike anything else. In hopes of keeping their muscles fueled and warding off the catabolic cascade athletes eat around the clock. But according to the previously mentioned 72 hour fasting study, abstaining from food for up to 3 days will not lead to higher protein breakdown rates in your muscle, nor will it slow down the rate of muscle protein synthesis. Your body is much smarter than that.
But what about sports performance?
There’s barely any notable difference in exercise performance when comparing different feeding patterns. The only exception being prolonged endurance activity. If you’re going to work out for 2+ hours, you should eat prior to your session. If, on the other hand, your training is comprised of short intense bouts (aka strength training < 1h) there’s no need to follow a particular feeding regimen. Do whatever works best for you. As long as your calorie and macronutrient needs are met, you’re good.
“So you’re telling me I can eat 2 or 12 meals a day and there will be no difference in metabolic rate?”
That is exactly what I’m saying. In isocaloric conditions, meal frequency plays little to no role in regulating your metabolism. But there’s more to the story. Scanning the data and comparing anecdotal feedback, I’ve come across a different phenomenon. Something the magazines don’t tell you. Eating less often might improve physical performance. Short-term fasting has been shown to sensitize androgen receptors and maximize the anabolic response to a meal (El Kadi, 2012) and to physical training (Van Proeyen et al, 2011).
Remember how I told you that peak insulin sensitivity was the key to statuesque body composition and maximum performance? Think about it, in response to a lower eating frequency the body has to become more efficient at utilizing nutrients. This can be measured in the lab by looking at protein wasting rates (amino acid oxidation). The less you take in, the more you retain and vice versa.
If metabolic speed and efficiency are not influenced by food intake, what are they influenced by?
Your body composition first and foremost. The amount of lean mass (muscle) you carry will determine your metabolic rate. If you’re lean and muscular, you’ll have a “faster” metabolism, regardless of how many times or when you choose to eat.
Meal Frequency and Weight-loss
In this study by Leidy et al (2010) a higher eating frequency was associated with increased hunger levels in obese men. Eating more often may increase appetite due to the constant rise and drop in blood sugar following food consumption.
By now you know that meal frequency has zero effect on energy expenditure in response to feeding (Thermic Effect of Food) and no influence on metabolic rate. So why would you want to graze throughout the day?
“I have blood sugar issues. I need to eat every 2-3 hours to keep my levels stable.”
There is no clinical evidence to support the notion that eating more often will regulate blood sugar. Your body is very well adapted to going long stretches without food.
According to the research it’s all in your head (Alken et al, 2008). “There has been considerable promotion both by the medical community and the lay press to consume 6 meals per day for weight loss or for glycemic control but our data indicate that the glucose AUC is 30% higher over the course of the day with a frequent high carbohydrate feeding than when consuming 3 meals per day.” (Holmstrup et al, 2010)
If you truly feel light-headed or notice a drop in energy between meals, your problem isn’t eating too infrequently. Your problem lies with your food and lifestyle choices.
The solution is not to eat every 2-3 hours, it’s to eat better when you do sit down to eat.
This in turn will protect you from blood sugar dysregulation and metabolic syndrome down the road. Unless you have a medical condition, there’s no need to consciously try and “keep your blood sugar stable” (Wiesli et al 2005). That’s your liver’s job. And if you stop perpetually stuffing yourself, it might have a chance to regulate glucose levels again.
We clearly see that eating small meals every few hours does not provide any physiological benefits whatsoever. So why is this misconception so widespread?
Because eating less is bad for business.
“[…] the supplement industry benefits greatly from people believing that frequent feedings provide a metabolic advantage. People don’t have time to eat six cooked meals a day. Instead, they turn to meal replacement powders, shakes and protein bars. The cereal and grain industry benefits by preaching about the virtues of breakfast for weight control, health and fat loss.” – Martin Berkhan
There’s no money to be made by telling people they’d do just fine eating 3 square meals a day. And that’s really what it boils down to. Heavy financial interests perpetuate these recommendations, keeping the myths alive. Although these bogus claims have been refuted time and time again, they still dominate mainstream thinking.
Eating more to lose weight? Sounds legit.
Science has spoken. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that eating more will have you weighing less, or that some metabolic magic is happening while you eat meal nr. 7.
Eat three square meals a day. Have the traditional breakfast-lunch-dinner and eliminate snacking from your diet. But the fun doesn’t have to stop there. By now, you know I’m a big proponent of intermittent fasting. I encourage you to experiment with a lower eating frequency. Skip breakfast on occasion, fast for 20-24 hours (dinner to dinner) every once in a while. Condition your body to work with less food and reap the plethora of health benefits.
Don’t be a slave to the clock and your Tupperware dishes. Eat when you’re hungry and err on the side of eating less often.
Thank you for reading
Alken, J./ Petriczko, E./ Marcus, C. (2008). Effect of fasting on young adults who have symptoms of hypoglycemia in the absence of frequent meals. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 62:72 1-726
Bellisle, F./ McDevitt, R./ Prentice, A.M. (1997). Meal Frequency and energy balance. British Journal of Nutrition. 77: 57-70
El Kadi, S.W./ Surayawan, S./ Gazzaneo, M.C./ Srivastava, N./ Orellana, R.A./ Nguyen, H.V./ Lobley, G.E./ Davis, T.A. (2012). Anabolic signaling and protein deposition are enhanced by intermittent compared with continuous feeding in skeletal muscle of neonates. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 302 E674-E686
Gjedsted, J. et al. (2007). Effects of a 3-day fast on regional lipid and glucose metabolism in human skeletal muscle and adipose tissue. Acta Physiologica Scandinavia 207;191:205-216
Holmstrup, M.E./ Owens, C.M./ Fairchild, T.J./ Kanaley, J.A. (2010). Effect of meal frequency on glucose and insulin excursions over the course of a day. Vol. 5, Iss. 6, e277–e280
Leidy, H.J./ Armstrong, C.L.H./ Tang, M./ Mattes, R.D./ Campbell, W.W. (2010), The Influence of Higher Protein Intake and Greater Eating Frequency on Appetite Control in Overweight and Obese Men. Obesity, 18: 1725–1732
Oyvind H, et al. The effect of meal frequency on body composition during 12 weeks of strength training. 12th Annual congress of the European College of Sport Science, 2007.
Van Proeyen, K./ De Bock, K./ Hespel, P. (2011). Training in the fasted state facilitates re activation of eEF2 activity during recovery from endurance exercise. Eur J Appl Physiol. 111(7) 1297-305
Wiesli, P./ Schwegerl, B./ Schmid, B./ Spinas, G.A./ Schmid, C. (2005). Mini-mental state examination is superior to plasma glucose concentrations in monitoring patients with suspected hypoglycemic disorder during the 72-hour fast. European Journal of Endocrinology 152: 605-610
Zauner, C./ Schneeweiss, B./ Kranz, A./ Madl, C./ Ratheiser, K./ Kramer, L./ Roth, E./ Schneider, B./ Lenz, K. (2000). Resting energy expenditure in short-term starvation is increased as a result of an increase in serum norepinephrine. Am J Clin Nutr.71(6):1511-5.