How Often Should You Eat?
A seemingly straightforward question that has been made confusing by the fitness industry. Claims varying from increased meal frequency stokes the metabolism to intermittent fasting improves longevity. But what is right, for you?
Before we look at the specifics, there is an important concept to remember: overall energy intake is the most important aspect of weight gain/loss. It is not everything, but it is a major component… This means that no matter how frequently you eat, it will be the overall intake that determines whether you gain/maintain/lose weight.
It should also be noted that I am huge fan of nutrient timing and placing certain macronutrients at certain times of the day (usually determined by exercise). However, nutrient timing only becomes relevant once overall energy intake and macronutrient composition have been established, and the client has developed a solid nutritionally structure that fits their daily commitments.
Now that we have covered those off, let's look at some common misconceptions around meal frequency.
1. Eating more frequently stokes the metabolism
Unfortunately not. Digesting food does require energy (thermic effect of food) which contributes to about 5% of daily energy expenditure, although this varies with differing nutrient intakes. Eating more frequently will not increase the thermic effect of food, only increasing overall intake can do this. This means that if you eat 6 meals with 400kcal each or three meals with 800 kcal each, the thermic effect of food will be the same.
Note: Eating more frequently can make it easier to increase the volume of food, but we will cover that soon.
2. Eat every three hours for muscle growth
Long story, short: Muscle protein synthesis (building muscle) can be stimulated by eating a certain amount of protein or more specifically, leucine (the amino acid). This increased rate of muscle protein synthesis remains elevated for around 3 hours. Therefore, the theory goes that if you eat more frequently, there are more opportunities to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and therefore drive muscle growth.
There is logic to support that this theory may induce slightly greater muscle protein synthesis, but this is not significant for most individuals, their lifestyles and goals. If you want to become an internationally acclaimed bodybuilder, meals every three hours may be necessary, but anyone else can build muscle without carrying tupperware excessively.
3. Eat less, more often, for weight loss
The idea that is that you eat smaller meals more frequently to stop you from feeling hungry. This can be quite effective, provided meals are consumed and none missed. However, it is not practical for everyone to eat every 2-3 hours and when you miss a meal on this high-frequency plan, hunger will hit hard!
Eating more frequently does not make you lose more weight, but it may help you reduce hunger and make the diet easier to adhere to. However, this can go the other way - some people will never satiated and end up in a constant state of hunger. Individual variability - as always - is essential.
Insights from Practical Experience
Here are some observations from the strategies we have successfully used with clients at Integrated Fitness & Nutrition.
Eating every 3-5 hours seems to work best
Food intake in this time frame seems to suit most people with body recomposition, health and performance goals. Those who prefer larger meals would be around the 5 hour mark and smaller meals may be consumed more frequently.
The most important consideration is selecting a structure that suits the individual's day and delivers the desired energy intake. Meal plans that do not suit the individual's day become quickly unsustainable and result in non-adherence. It is my responsibility - not the clients - to select the right strategy for them and if it is not working, alter it.
Want muscle fast: increased frequency can be effective.
If the goal is hypertrophy alone, eating more frequently has been quite successful strategy with several of our clients. Most people chasing hypertrophy alone who have previously been lean/skinny to begin with, often overestimate their food intake. Moderately-sized meals at an increased frequency has been a successful strategy for building muscle for these individuals.
These results are presumably due to this being an effective strategy for increasing overall food intake. Particularly when these clients may have previously overestimated food intake and eaten sporadically. They also have the desire to commit to the eating regime and have accomodating work/study/training commitments.
Main rule: test to establish what is best for the individual
Meal frequency is not dictated by me, it is dictated by the client. We need to develop a frequency that suits their lifestyle and will be achievable. Once we determine this frequency, we can allocate nutrient amounts and develop the right meals
The role of meal frequency is to best-deliver the right energy intake for a clients goals, experience and lifestyle. Increasing frequency will have no benefits beyond and increase or decreased overall energy intake.
Begin experimenting with your own meal frequency to establish what works best for you - you might be surprised!