Gym-goers and bodybuilders often contend that eating smaller meals every 2 to 3 hours through the day is optimal for "stoking the metabolism," stabilizing blood sugar levels, and stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Many of these individuals will argue that going any longer than three hours without eating makes the body enter "catabolic mode." But is there any truth to such notions?
The subject of meal frequency has been unnecessarily involved for decades. While the number of meals you eat per day does matter (to an extent), it's not as significant as traditional bodybuilding and fitness dogma suggest. As with most things in life, moderation (read: avoiding polarizing extremes) seems to be the key to meal frequency.
Ironically, intermittent fasting, which generally entails eating 2 to 3 big meals in a constrained timeframe, has burgeoned as the alternative to eating 6 to 7 small meals throughout the day. Notice how these both seem like polar opposites?
So, how many meals should you eat per day to lose weight? How often should you eat to build muscle/gain weight? Does eating frequent, small meals suppress appetite and hunger better than a few large meals spaced further apart? Let's look at what research has to say about meal frequency and its influence on metabolism, body weight, muscle mass, blood sugar, and appetite.
Arguably the most misunderstood claim about eating smaller, more frequent meals (e.g. every two to three hours throughout the day) is that it burns more calories than consuming a conventional "three square meals" — breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Research on meal frequency has more or less debunked this belief.
According to several studies, the thermic effect of feeding (TEF) does not significantly vary between those who eat small meals more frequently and those who consume large meals a few times per day . What data does show is that the total energy content of meals (i.e. calorie count) influences the TEF . Further evidence suggests that higher protein intake is positively associated with the TEF .
Interestingly, some studies have shown that irregular meal patterns can negatively impact the TEF and blood sugar levels, thereby leading to weight gain in the long run [4, 5]. Essentially, the body may adapt to a daily schedule where it "anticipates" energy intake, and sharply deviating from this pattern from one day to the next can reduce the amount of calories you burn from eating.
However, don't misconstrue that to mean that skipping a meal from time to time will make your metabolism "shut down." As long as you stick to a routine meal pattern, slight deviations won't make much difference in metabolic rate.
As a side note, people who eat quickly (fast-eaters) may burn fewer calories than slow-eaters after a meal with the same energy/nutrient content . Experts contend that the decrease in mastication frequency of fast-eaters can significantly reduce the TEF.
Fast-eaters may also be at a higher risk of type-2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease, ostensibly due to irregular insulin signaling, blood sugar spikes, dyslipidemia, and impaired hunger signaling [7, 8, 9]. So, take your time when eating food!
Ultimately, your total calorie intake and habitual meal frequency schedule are the principal determinants of metabolic expenditure ("calorie burn") related to eating. Consuming a high-protein diet may also encourage your body to burn more calories, but this does not mean you should go overboard on protein in hopes of launching your metabolism into orbit.
Eating too much of anything is not a sound approach, especially if your goal is to lose weight, control blood sugar levels, and promote a healthy appetite.
The advent of intermittent fasting has engendered a paradigm shift from the typical six-small meals/snacks-per-day recommendation you see in many fitness magazines. Naturally, people on the IF bandwagon have taken it to the extreme by skipping breakfast, lunch, and dinner then "rewarding" themselves with a gluttonous feast at night.
While it's possible, and even likely, to lose weight by eating just one meal per day, it's not a very healthy approach. Recall from earlier that the total calorie content of meals has a major impact on the TEF, but extremely infrequent feeding is the exception to the rule.
Studies show that the body can only utilize a finite amount of protein at any given meal for protein synthesis . Therefore, not eating frequently enough will limit muscle protein anabolism and harm body composition/lean mass. So yes, you might lose weight by skipping meals throughout the day and then gorging at night — merely because it's tough to overshoot your daily calorie needs in one meal — but you're not losing the right kind of weight (i.e. body fat).
For active individuals that want to maximize muscle retention on a weight-loss diet, it's best to spread meals out about three to five hours apart and consume at least 20-30 grams of protein with each . Doing so will also have favorable influences on hunger signaling and overall health.
Dysregulated appetite and hunger signals are commonly cited as underlying culprits of obesity, type-2 diabetes, and other metabolic conditions . But does eating a certain number of meals a day modulate calorie intake and hunger signaling?
Well, the evidence is somewhat equivocal. Research on type-2 diabetics has found that those who eat a large breakfast and lunch may have an easier time sticking to a low-calorie diet due to a greater increase in fasting ghrelin levels than those who eat six smaller meals a day [13, 14].
Yet, other data shows that men who eat only one to two meals a day are at higher risk of type-2 diabetes than those who eat three meals a day . Curiously, there don't appear to be any notable differences between type-2 diabetes risk in those who consume three meals a day or six meals a day . As such, the "optimal" meal pattern for healthy blood sugar balance is likely three to six meals a day, assuming nutrient and calorie distribution are fairly proportionate.
Furthermore, calorie intake also doesn't seem to vary significantly when comparing subjects that follow a frequent-eating regimen and those who consume two to three larger meals per day . Thus, it's tough to reconcile the available literature with the supposition that eating small meals/snacks every few hours throughout the day is advantageous for controlling appetite and hunger. Some data even indicates the opposite; that those who eat fewer, larger meals may feel less hungry throughout the day .
After digesting all of the above, you might still be wondering if you should eat every two hours, or if eating two meals a day is healthy.
So, are you supposed to eat six meals a day? No. You're supposed to eat as often as you like so long as you avoid extremes (e.g. once per day). Of course, there may be extenuating circumstances where skipping your next meal or eating every two hours is necessary. But for the majority of the population, there is no all-encompassing "perfect" meal pattern.
Your overall nutrition and calorie intake play a crucial role in health and athletic performance. How often you eat is less critical.
However, protein distribution is particularly important for athletes, gym-goers, and bodybuilders that are trying to preserve/build muscle mass. Once you dip below two to three meals a day, you're going to impede muscle protein synthesis. Therefore, it's prudent to eat at least four protein-rich meals throughout the day if your goal is to lose weight and build muscle.
When you're in a pinch and don't have access to whole food, drinking a protein shake or eating a protein bar is generally better than skipping meals. Don't use "being busy" as an excuse to skip meals; you can't really "make it up" later in the day by overfeeding on protein.
With that in mind, be sure to check out the Jacked Factory Authentic Bar if you're looking for a delicious on-the-go treat that satisfies your cravings while providing 16 grams of quality whey protein.
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Building muscle after 50 years of age (and older) is entirely possible with the right training program and proper nutrition. It’s never too late to transform your body and increase your strength. Follow these tips to make it happen!