In today’s world where the opportunity for instant gratification seems to becoming ever more prevalent, in everything from our eating habits, right through to our consumption of content on the internet, it can be tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that there is some magical diet that will get you the body of your dreams and fuel your performance, all without any sacrifice, and a few strategies involving the frequency of your daily meals tend to fall into this category.
One such strategy is Intermittent Fasting, where you fast for a certain part of the day, and get all of your food in, in a set time period, usually eating only 1–2 meals per day. On the other hand, you have people who say we should eat as many times per day as possible.
So, are either of these approaches ideal? or is the answer, as usual, somewhere in the middle? And based on that last sentence, I think you can probably guess where my answer is going to be on this one, and of course, it is somewhere in between the two extremes.
It seems to be a common theme throughout most topics, from nutrition, right through to things like politics, that the answer often lands somewhere between the two extremes. Sometimes, it can feel like you have to pick a side, in order to avoid being accused of sitting on the fence. But to me, sitting on the fence means not having an opinion. What if, instead, we were able to take the useful stuff from both extremes, and make a more informed opinion, based on both sides of the argument?
Well, that’s what I’ll aim to do today with the topic of meal frequency.
Let’s start with the main question that should be asked with any nutritional intervention, and that is, “What is the outcome you are trying to achieve?”.
I’m going to make the assumption that if you’re reading this or have been following me for a while, your goals are probably something to do with fat-loss, muscle gain and/or performance.
So today, I will aim to outline how meal frequency affects these areas.
So, firstly, let’s look at the low meal frequency protocols, such as intermittent fasting, where people may be consuming as little as 1–2 meals per day, within a constrained eating window of, let’s say about 8 hours.
The theory is that while someone is fasting for the other 16 hours of the day, they are in a superior fat-burning state. However, whilst it may be true that fat-burning effect is increased in the time, that doesn’t mean that fat-loss will be greater over the full day.
You see, fat-burning is only one side of the equation, the other being fat storage. Both of these are happening throughout the day, going through periods of eating and not eating.
If more fat has been burned (or oxidised) than has been stored over a given time period, then fat-loss will occur and vice versa.
This is largely controlled by our good old friend, energy balance.
If we eat more calories than we expend, through everyday life and exercise, this shifts the “fat-burned” vs. “Fat stored” equation towards the “Fat stored” end of the equation. With that said, with sufficient resistance training, this extra energy could be used to create new muscle tissue, rather than fat.
However, the point still remains that regardless of how much fat one is burning whilst in a fasted state, there is no reason to think that this fat can’t be regained during the eating period.
However, some studies have shown that restricting daily food intake to 2 meals can lead to less daily energy intake for some people, which would indeed lead to weight-loss. However, this is something that will be very much down to the individual. Some people will end up eating more with this approach, and some people will eat less.
On the other end of the scale, we have those who claim that eating 6–8 times per day “stokes the metabolism”, or increases the amount of energy burned because it takes energy to break down and digest food, leading to greater energy output and therefore greater fat-loss.
Now, whilst eating a meal causes one to use energy to digest that meal, (a process known as the thermic effect of food, which usually accounts for roughly 10% of our daily energy expenditure) this doesn’t mean that eating more times per day will lead to greater energy output.
If fact, the amount of energy you burn in breaking down a meal will be roughly proportional to the caloric content of that meal (all else equal). So, a bigger meal will take more energy to digest, and a smaller meal will take less, so it basically evens out, leading to the same overall daily metabolism-raising effect, if calories are equal.
Now, in terms of muscle building/recovery, there is an effect known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is when the body builds new muscle, and this can be a result of eating a sufficiently large portion of good quality protein (usually between 25g and 40g of protein, like a chicken breast, a piece of steak, a beef burger, 4 eggs, or a protein shake).
Now, this may lead you to think that you should be eating as many protein portions per day, in order to get as many of these MPS responses per day as possible.
However, studies have shown that this MPS effect can only be stimulated once every 3–4 hours, at which rate, you’d end up eating about 4–5 meals per day, meaning that eating more times than this isn’t necessary for optimally building muscle.
But again, with it in mind that weight-gain, weight-loss and fuelling performance is largely dependant on intaking the right amount of overall energy, if eating 6–8 times per day is necessary to allow you to intake enough calories, then by all means, do so. This may be useful for a very active athelte who trains a lot and struggles to eat enough in 3–5 meals.
In summary, the amount of meals you should eat per day is very much dependant on what fits into your schedule and lifestyle, whilst allowing you to provide the body with the energy and macronutrients needed to progress with your performance and body composition goals, whilst preferably hitting 4–5 protein servings per day.
This usually falls into line with the eating habits of most people involved in sport and exercise. That is: breakfast, lunch, dinner and maybe a snack or two along the way, usually one of these snacks being a protein shake or protein-rich snack after training.
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