One aspect of a diet program set-up that’s becoming a heated debate right now is that of meal frequency.
Typically, you have two camps of people in this debate.
Camp one are those who strongly believe that you should be eating on a constant basis throughout the day – preferably every two to three hours, always making sure your body has an ongoing stream of nutrients delivering amino acids and carbohydrates to the muscle cells.
Then you have camp two who believe that meal frequency is more a matter of preference than anything else. They feel that as long as you get the food in, it’s not going to matter a great deal how it’s distributed.
So, what’s the real deal with all this meal frequency stuff? Should you be eating by the clock or is this really going to have that large of an impact on your progress?
Here are some things you need to consider.
Are You Dieting Or Bulking
The first point to take into consideration regarding meal frequency is whether you’re currently trying to strip away fat or if you’re trying to build some lean muscle mass.
Those who are bulking are likely going to find it easier to eat with a higher frequency since it can be quite the challenge to get the 4000+ calories a day some heavier individuals need to gain more muscle mass.
If they’re trying to squeeze all these calories into three square meals, chances are they are going to have some severe bloating going on. If they spread this intake out throughout the day, it usually becomes more manageable.
If you’re dieting on the other hand though, you might actually want to consider a slightly reduced meal frequency simply because due to the fact you’re eating fewer calories, if you split this up too much, you’re going to wind up with teeny tiny meals that won’t feel satisfying at all.
That feeling of satiety during a diet is definitely one of the things you want to try and promote to make the process easier on yourself, so allowing for slightly bigger meals may help the situation.
Meal Frequency and Energy Expenditure
The camp of people who believe that’s it best to eat ‘six small meals a day’, as often described when asked what their diet consists of generally feel that by eating in this manner, they are keeping their metabolism revved all day long.
They think that if you decrease your intake to only a few times a day, the metabolism will slow, thus making fat loss harder.
But, studies are now proving otherwise.
In a study conducted by Maastricht University in the Netherlands, subjects were put on two different diets, one consisting of breakfast and dinner meals only, and the other consisting of all three main meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
After evaluating the energy expenditure of both groups after consuming such a set-up, it was found that there was no significant difference in the two scenarios on energy expenditure, diet-induced thermogenesis, activity-induced energy expenditure, or sleeping basal metabolic rate.
Therefore, this demonstrates that while breaking your daily intake up into more frequent meals may help with satiety, it’s not going to make a whole great deal of a difference on total metabolic rate.
The thing to keep in mind here is that the metabolism will adjust to the amount of food consumed at any particular instant. So, if you eat 600 calories of food, the body will burn off X amount of calories (‘X’ will vary depending on the macronutrient composition of the exact meal).
In comparison, if you eat only 200 calories of food, your body will then burn off a third of whatever X was in the first situation (assuming again, similar macronutrient composition of meals).
At the end of the day, if both diets equate to the same amount of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and fat, you will burn almost similar amounts through the process of digestion, thereby speeding up the metabolism to the same degree.
The One Exception With Meal Frequency
While, as proved above, it’s not going to matter to an incredible extent the exact frequency you choose to eat your meals (your muscle tissue won’t be eaten alive if you go three hours and two minutes without a meal), the one time when it definitely does make a difference is with your pre-and post workout meals.
The post-workout meal is especially important as this is the time when a positive flow of amino acids is going to promote the rate of protein synthesis, coupled with incoming glucose, which will raise insulin levels and shuttle the protein into the cells that much faster.
You do not want to be consuming this meal any longer than thirty minutes after your workout if recovery and strength improvements are a concern for you.
Stress and Meal Frequency
Finally, the last thing that must be touched upon with regards to meal frequency is that if you find yourself stressed out during the day over getting all your meals in at each set time, you’re probably better off decreasing frequency to relieve this stress.
Stress in itself plays a huge role in progress as high-stress levels release a hormone called Cortisol, which essentially promotes the loss of muscle mass, the accumulation of body fat, and creates feelings of fatigue and burn out.
If your diet is causing high levels of stress due to planning, it’s doing more harm than good.
Ideally your diet needs to focus on these factors in this order.
• Achieving an appropriate calorie intake in alignment with your goals.
• Consuming sufficient protein each day.
• Getting between 3-6 grams of essential fatty acids.
• Taking care of proper pre and post workout nutrition.
• Finding a meal frequency that leaves you feeling satisfied, while working with your overall lifestyle.
It’s when you accomplish all of these factors that you will see the best results with your diet program.
So, don’t let meal frequency be something that worries you any longer. Some people prefer many meals, some don’t. Do what’s best for you, within these guidelines, and that is what will get you to your goals.
Smeets, AJ, Westerterp-Plantenga, MS. (2008). Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the low range of meal frequency. Br. J. Ntrition. Jun;99(6):1316-21.