You’ve probably heard from your local gym bro that you need to eat at least 5 meals a day to optimize fat-burning and muscle gains; but is that actually true? Is there any truth to the old-school thinking of eating 5-6 times a day to “stoke the metabolic fire”? This is what we are going to be discussing today! I’d love to hear your guys’s thoughts on this as well!
The Proposed Mechanism
Let’s first talk about why some people think that eating more times throughout the day leads to greater muscle gains and improved body composition through more fat-burning.
For muscle gains, people feel that more meals is better because you are getting more “protein-feedings” throughout the day which should in theory increase the time in which you’re in an anabolic state, leading to greater gains than less meals.
For fat-burning, the claim is that eating more frequently keeps your body in a more frequent state of heightened metabolism than less meals. This is known as postprandial (after eating) thermogenesis (heat production). The body’s metabolic pathways require energy to work which comes from calories and food. So you should be burning more fat, right?
I’ll be honest. I followed these tenets myself when I was younger for a few years because they felt intuitive and I thought they made sense. However, as I learned more and looked at the research, I discovered that it doesn’t make much of a difference. Let me explain!
In 2015, there was an excellent meta-analysis published by Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, James Krieger, and others addressing the questions around meal frequency and its effects on body composition (almost literally the title). What they found may shock you! Kidding, I’m not a click-baiting prick. I hope you know that by now, dear reader.
They defined body composition as the culmination of body mass, fat mass, and lean mass which they measured through each of those criterion with the addition of body fat percent.
To keep this section short and sweet, they basically found that none of these factors are significantly influenced by feeding frequency when calories are equated between experimental and control groups¹, which is the proper way to evaluate whether or not there is an effect.
There was one study out of the 15 that were pooled together that did influence the data to show a favorable outcome for 5+ meals compared to 1-2 meals on fat mass and fat-free mass; however, when this study was taken out of the evaluation for further accuracy purposes (this is known as a sensitivity analysis), there showed no differences as with the other metrics¹.
From this meta-analysis, we can conclude pretty well that meal frequency doesn’t really affect your body composition much with all other variables in check. We’ll talk about the practical application of this in a moment. Let’s finish this section talking about the protein issue.
Since we already determined that frequency doesn’t really matter, that also lumps in protein feedings as not necessarily significant:
“The findings from nitrogen-balance studies have been inconsistent on the topic, with some showing a positive correlation between meal frequency and nitrogen retention and others showing no such relationship”.¹
Nitrogen balance studies reveal the rate of protein metabolism with a positive balance meaning that input of N is greater than losses of N through metabolism and other bodily processes. A positive Nitrogen balance is typically associated with growth because amino acids contain a Nitrogen (amine) group which is part of what classifies it as an amino acid and thus protein; however, as mentioned above, the research is not concise on whether this matters. As of now, we can’t say which is better, so don’t stress yourself out about spacing out your protein to maximize anabolism.
What is going to matter more is total daily protein intake based on your personal needs. So long as you have that in check, you should be okay. The consensus is not yet in on whether or not you should distribute your daily protein evenly across your meals¹. Some studies show greater body composition outcomes with similar-protein meals while others do not¹. We don’t know yet.
Why does any of this matter? I basically just told you that none of this stuff is as important as you may have once thought. Did I shatter your dreams? I’m sorry. But, there is some good news out of this: You can customize these things to whatever fits your lifestyle!
You should revel in the fact that meal frequency isn’t very important! If you’re a 9-5 worker or have other more odd hours for work, it may be hard to get the mystical 5-6 meals/day. Maybe you can only have 2-3 meals each day. Guess what? That’s great! That means they can be bigger than the 5-6 small meals! Sometimes it’s just nice to have a big pile of food (but not go overboard with it).
I know for myself it’s much easier to have 2 full meals and then snacks. It makes my life easier and if I have to pivot or make changes because I’ll be especially busy that day, the snacks give me the flexibility to do so.
It’s important to always consider your personal lifestyle and how the decisions you make regarding training or nutrition are going to impact your life. The goal should be to augment and improve your life, not take away from it. How often you eat really should not be a decision that stresses you out. Choose what’s easy and convenient for you and be on your way!
Regarding protein, since we don’t really know the best way to space it out (if there is a best way), don’t worry about it. Just focus on getting the necessary amount of protein for yourself and your needs; however I do have some advice on how to do it to make your life easier:
- Spacing out protein for me has been effective because it allows me to control my appetite. Protein is the most satiating (helps you feel satisfied) macronutrient, so take advantage of that with each meal or as often as you can!
- If you’re struggling with eating a lot of protein in food, don’t hesitate to have a shake. Having a shake with each meal may help to curb hunger.
- Explore different protein options! While I love meat and eat a lot of chicken, I’m always excited to try a new recipe with just eggs or using legumes or even a different type of meat I’ve never had. Lean sources are great because they provide a lot of protein with little fat that can add up quickly.
I hope you found this useful and understand further to not sweat the small stuff. Meal frequency is certainly one of the more over-hyped things that actually doesn’t matter a lot. What frequency works for you and what do you do for your protein? Thanks for reading!
¹Brad Jon Schoenfeld, Alan Albert Aragon, James W. Krieger; Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 73, Issue 2, 1 February 2015, Pages 69–82, https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuu017