One question that is popping up all over the bodybuilding space is the question is meal frequency. Not just meal timing, just the basic question of how many times do I need to eat per day?
Just the other day I received this note …. (for you who can’t read, I’m not saying this, I said I received this)
No study has ever confirmed that it is more efficient to eat 6 small meals as opposed to 3 big meals (or even 2!) in terms of body composition results.
Are those six meals a day I’ve heard about really necessary? People have been told for some time that in order to build muscle and gain weight, they need to be eating. In the past, you’ve probably heard that eating more frequent meals is has a thermodynamic effect and you will burn more fat by eating more often. ( A study done in 2010 disproves this assumption)
But is this dogma true? First, let’s examine the short list of frequent meals. This list is by no means definitive.
Benefits of More Meals Per Day:
- appetite control
- frequent eating and tight control of within day energy balance help to control insulin
- personal observation (not scientific but not irrelevant either)
- energy balance
- higher meal frequency is important from a cortisol control standpoint
Drawbacks to More Meals Per Day:
- too much eating
- burden to carry so much food around
- preparation for the amount of food
- not necessary to achieve the proper amount of total daily calories
- not necessary for the current level of athletic training
” If eating 5-6 times a day helps control your appetite and easily hit your calorie goals, if it gives you more energy, keeps you satisfied all day long and you enjoy it – then that’s the way to go. If eating bodybuilder-style with 5 or 6 whole food meals a day is a burden to you with the food prep and time spent eating, or it makes it harder to stick with your plan, not easier, then you’re better off with 3 or 4 meals a day or 3 meals with snacks.” – Tom Venuto, author of Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle
To take Tom Venuto’s statement a bit further here’s what Dr. Dan Benardot, PhD., RD, LD, FACSM, and author of Advanced Sports Nutrition says on the meal frequency subject…
“There is a limit to how much energy (i.e., calories) the body can handle properly at one time. By satisfying our total energy requirements through infrequent eating opportunities, this limit is passed and problems occur. In addition, infrequent eating does nothing to address normal blood sugar fluctuation. Blood sugar peaks about one hour after eating, and is back to pre-meal levels about two hours after that. That means that we can expect a normal range of blood sugar for about three hours. Unless something is consumed to satisfy the need for blood sugar every three hours, gluconeogenesis can result with a loss of lean mass.”
“A dedicated bodybuilder should eat at least five times a day and space those meals no further than three hours apart. I have found eating smaller, more frequent meals, or in other words “grazing” throughout the day, is the most efficient way for my body to process food.” – SkipLaCour; six-time national drug-free champion bodybuilder; author of Bodybuilding Nutrition
Will Brink, author, columnist and consultant, to the supplement, fitness, bodybuilding, and weight loss industry and author of Bodybuilding Revealed & Fat Loss Revealed weights in with an excellent video on the subject.
Do You Need to Eat Six Times a Day or More?
At this point, I hope you are not confused! What I’ve found is that first and foremost you must get your required number of calories per day to reach your goals. After that, meal timing becomes important given your activities in the next hours. You do not need to eat more frequent meals IF your blood sugar is in control and your appetite is fine.
Signs of Hunger:
- hunger pangs
- loss of focus and inability to concentrate
If you are NOT engaging in high intensity training or activities that require some type of re-fueling OR if you are taking a training break OR sedentary, then 3 meals a day would probably be just fine.
However, if you want to optimize performance, be your best at your intense workouts, perform longer duration activities, then don’t get caught in the trap of controversy that says multiple meals (maybe 5 maybe more) is not necessary. Or that there’s no evidence via studies to show that multiple meals has an affect on body composition.
In fact it IS and there are SEVERAL studies (listed below) that prove this.
Going by personal experience, as should you in this case, if you find yourself getting light-headed and you feel like you want to grab the closest candy bar, you are probably experiencing some significant swings in insulin. Having more frequent meals helps control this issue and it’s why I like having 5-6 meals per day. I’m able to eat at a 15% calorie deficit when cutting without going crazy with hunger or insulin making me make horrible choices out of desperation.
However, if you eat 3 times a day maybe a snack or two and get your calories in per day, have energy for your activity and you experience NONE of the hunger swings or cravings, you simply don’t need more meals per day.
I am a fan of frequent eating but is it absolutely 100% necessary?
The answer is you should customize your meal frequency!
Meal Frequency can be affected by:
- your history
In the meantime, based on the research and several experts in the field of nutrition and bodybuilding listed here on subject, I’ll continue to eat my six bodybuilding style meals per day.
I’d love to know what you think on this subject.
Marc David – CPT
Additional Resources and Studies on Meal Frequency
- Meal Frequency: International Society of Sports Nutrition
- Meal Frequency and Energy Balance by Lyle McDonald
- Researchers Look at How Frequency of Meals May Affect Health
- Beneficial metabolic effects of regular meal frequency on dietary thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity
- Meal frequency and energy balance
- Meal Frequency and Weight Loss by Dr. Christopher Mohr
- Optimal Protein Intake And Meal Frequency To Support Maximal Protein Synthesis and Muscle Mass by Dr. Layne Norton
- Effects of meal frequency on body composition during weight control in boxers
2 Replies to “Meal Frequency: Is Eating Six Times a Day Necessary?”
I have heard a lot about this topic and always wondered about it. I did realize now that it is really about your personal choices and moods. Some of us can do the 3 to 4 more easily. That actually fits my schedule much better.
You always find the most crazy fitness articles Marc. 🙂 When I read your email, I had to laugh. The line from the email that said: “The less frequently you eat, the more stable your insulin levels will be and the longer you’ll remain in a fat-burning hormonal state during the day.” All I could think of is, “Yeah, you’ll be hormonal alright!” By that logic, not eating at all would keep those insulin levels pretty much “flatline”. Of course, if you don’t eat at all, you’ll probably flatline your energy level and eventually you’ll just flatline yourself (i.e. die).
Marc, you’ve taught me to not base everything on one article or study. You have been the voice of reason in a “fitness and health” world riddled with crazy gimmicks. I’m glad you are rooting out these crazy ideas. Keep up the good work Marc!