“You have to eat six small meals a day—this is the key to losing fat and building muscle.”
I’ve been hearing this bodybuilding mantra for decades. But now I question the importance of meal frequency. I’ll share some of the research I’ve run across and let you decide:
Meal Frequency for Fat Loss
Do small, frequent meals “fire up” your metabolism? Apparently not. One study, for example, compared the energy expenditure when subjects ate all their calories in two meals vs. seven meals. The study found “no consequences for the total 24 h energy expenditure (24 h EE) of the two feeding patterns.”[i]
The International Society of Sport’s Nutrition has come to this consensus:
Position Statement Admittedly, research to date examining the physiological effects of meal frequency in humans is somewhat limited. More specifically, data that has specifically examined the impact of meal frequency on body composition, training adaptations, and performance in physically active individuals and athletes is scant. Until more research is available in the physically active and athletic populations, definitive conclusions cannot be made. However, within the confines of the current scientific literature, we assert that: 1. Increasing meal frequency does not appear to favorably change body composition in sedentary populations. 2. If protein levels are adequate, increasing meal frequency during periods of hypoenergetic dieting may preserve lean body mass in athletic populations. 3. Increased meal frequency appears to have a positive effect on various blood markers of health, particularly LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and insulin. 4. Increased meal frequency does not appear to significantly enhance diet induced thermogenesis, total energy expenditure or resting metabolic rate. 5. Increasing meal frequency appears to help decrease hunger and improve appetite control. The following literature review has been prepared by the authors in support of the aforementioned position statement.[ii]
Is meal frequency clearly that important in terms of fat loss? As you can see, the research on this subject is “scant.” But it seems the primary advantage of frequent meals (in terms of fat loss) is compliance. In other words, it’s easier to stay on a calorie-restricted diet when you are eating every few hours.
Meal Frequency for Mass
How important is meal frequency for gaining mass? Once again, we are left with the same dilemma—very limited research. But one group of athletes may shed some light on the subject: sumo wrestlers.
If I understand things correctly, Sumo wrestlers train every morning in a fasted state. They work up a ravenous appetite during their training before gorging on a huge meal (followed by a nap). Their diet is based on two high-calorie meals, and this seems pretty effective for adding bulk.
“Sumo wrestlers aren’t just muscular–they are fat,” you may argue. True, but we have to consider the sheer number of calories they consume: 20,000 per day!
Is there any real advantage for smaller, more frequent meals if you are trying to bulk up? Once again it seems compliance would be the main advantage. Let’s say, for example, you are aiming for 5,000 calories per day. You’ll probably find this easier to accomplish over 4-6 meals instead of just 2-3.
Compliance in the Real World
I’ve repeatedly used the word “compliance” in this article. But here’ the real dilemma: what if you can’t fit 5-6 meals into your daily schedule? Let’s face it: some of us can’t walk around with a protein shake to get that mid-morning “feed” in.
This is where I find the research . . . well . . . liberating. The more I study, the more I’m convinced it all boils down to getting adequate nutrients and the right number of calories for one’s goals—regardless of how many times you eat per day. You’re not doomed to mediocrity just because you can’t comply with a six-meal-a-day schedule.
Let me be clear: you will have to plan your diet if you want the best physique possible. But the plan should be something you can realistically implement. Don’t fret if you can’t eat every few hours—just design your nutritional plan around what you can do. There is life, after all, outside of the gym.
About the author:
Kevin is a blogger and gym rat. He is the author of Lose Fat, Gain Muscle (Strongandfit.net)