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Meal Frequency: Finding The Body Composition Sweet Spot

Feel like you eat all the time but are never satisfied? Take a hard look at your meal planning and caloric distribution.

"Eat 4-6 meals per day to rev your metabolism and burn more calories."

How many times have you heard that? Plenty, I imagine. In bodybuilding circles, this often gets expanded to 6-8 meals. I even saw a Mr. Olympia diet article where the reigning champ was eating 10 meals per day.

I get the logic. More is better. Keep fueling the metabolic furnace. But do we? When a dietary system like this places such strict demands on our lifestyles, we need to re-examine our habits and the science that drives them.

I found that fitness and bodybuilding people could benefit from eating less often, and people just starting out on their weight-loss or bodybuilding journey benefit from eating more often. But no matter which camp you're in, I recommend building an eating plan based around your caloric needs, rather than arbitrarily using a number you hear mentioned by someone else.

How should you begin to do that? Let's break it down.

Why Six Times Per Day?

I'll be blunt: There's not really any good data supporting hyper-metabolic effects of multiple meals.

One study published in International Journal of Obesity found that consistently eating more frequently—six times per day, to be specific—led to a greater "thermic effect" from food than eating sporadically. The thermic effect of food is basically the amount of energy it takes for your body to break down, digest, and process, the energy (food) you ingest.

In this study, frequent meals were linked to a statistically significant increase in the thermic effect of food, e.g. calorie-burning, but it wasn't enough to draw significant conclusions in the realms of physique or body composition. Additionally, there wasn't anything in the study to indicate that eating three, four, or five meals were worse than six—only that it was better than "sporadic" eating.

That is pretty much all the data you'll find on meal frequency and boosting metabolism. For this reason, I make meal frequency recommendations for my clients based on two major factors: protein synthesis and satiety.

Meals Gained ≠ Muscle Gains

OK, so the science isn't there, but everyone else seems like they're doing it, so it can't cause any harm, right? If your goal is maximum protein synthesis, I think there is a definite downside to eating often.

The first problem I see people run into when they eat frequently is that their blood amino acid levels are constantly elevated. In order to optimize protein synthesis you need to give your body a solid serving of protein which boosts protein synthesis and subsequently causes your blood amino acid (specifically leucine) levels to drop. To maximize synthesis, you should then hit your body with more protein while the levels are lower.

If you eat non-stop—every hour or two—then you aren't going to experience the fluctuation in blood amino acid levels you need to optimize muscle growth. You need to space your meals out sufficiently in order to get the maximum amount of protein synthesis out of the food you eat.

Another issue that you run into is meal size. On one hand, it's true that protein content plays a big role in satiety. Protein's presence in the digestive track triggers the release of the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK), which signals to your brain that you've eaten and should be satisfied. However, meal size has been shown to be more important than protein content when it comes to satiety. If you eat too often, your meals will be so small that despite being protein-rich, they won't satisfy you.

So you're hungry—so what? Seriously, that is no way to live! If you're going to go to all the trouble to eat all those meals, you should at least feel full. If you don't, well, good luck sticking with your plan through the endless hours of prep and planning.

How Frequent Is Frequent Enough?

Some simple math can help us here. When looking to optimize anabolism and satiety, the number meals you eat throughout the day should be a divisor of the total amount of calories you eat.

If you eat 3,000 calories per day, then breaking that into five 600 calorie meals would probably give you sufficient food to feel satisfied, while not demanding so much that you need to turn to lower quality foods in order to hit your per-meal calorie targets. On the other hand, if you eat only 2,000 calories per day, eating five 400-calories meals is not a satiating option, but eating four 500-calorie meals would be more filling.

Each of these meals should contain a minimum of 30 grams of protein (the amount which research has shown is necessary to maximally stimulate protein synthesis). This pulse of protein can also be effectively spaced out and repeated throughout the day for the biggest increases in protein synthesis. If your calories are so low that you can't get 30 grams of protein at each meal, sprinkle on a little leucine or have a BCAA drink with your meal to cover your bases in the protein synthesis department.

Remember when planning these meals that size is directly connected to satiety, so don't make them too small to be filling. Not a big-time planner? You can still do this. Just eat a solid, protein-rich meal every 3-4 hours, and you'll be more or less on track.


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About The Author

Author, speaker, and nutritional consultant Mike Roussell, PhD is known for transforming complex nutritional concepts into practical habits...

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1muscle0

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1muscle0

Great article before I only ate 3 times a day now I eat 4-5 times a day it keeps me full and satisfied throughout the day. Also I have seen a great change in my physique eating more frequently throughout the day.

Jan 29, 2013 6:46pm | report
tranimalmode

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tranimalmode

People swear by eating 6x a day will equal a high metabolism. Glad this came out.

Jan 29, 2013 7:55pm | report
E90335i

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E90335i

me too!

Jan 29, 2013 8:41pm | report
travis132

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travis132

I eat 6 meals a day because I have a high metabolism not to speed it up :P works for my bulks though!

Jan 29, 2013 8:16pm | report
paulski45

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paulski45

great article with solid info! thanks!!!!

Jan 29, 2013 8:17pm | report
Adrian77

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Adrian77

This was an interesting article to read. On the one hand Mike is telling the truth about meal frequency but then on the other hand he is telling everyone to do the high meal frequency anyway!

Rather than spend a whole section talking about one study supporting high meal frequency, he could have just said that there are MANY studies that show it makes NO DIFFERENCE how many and explained why.

He concludes by prescribing meals every 3-4 hours which equates to 4-6 meals (assuming you sleep 6-8 hours/day) so we are back to high meal frequency again!

It takes 4-6 hours to digest meat let alone for the amino levels to drop. So if he's prescribing a drop in blood aminos as optimal, you'd have to be relying on fast digesting whey protein in order to get the amino drop within 3-4 hours.

What he should have said in the end was "As many meals as you want as long as you meet your macros and calorie targets"

Jan 29, 2013 8:40pm | report
bbastos

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bbastos

Exactly, Adrian! You are absolutely right. It was a very strange turn of direction. :(

I was also expecting him to touch slightly concepts like intermittent fasting (IF) since it is such a popular issue right now. In fact, I am hearing more: "fit your macros/calories with IF" than "fit them with 6 meals".

Regardless, I know BOTH ideas work. The speed of achieving your goals may vary, but with consistency and nice nutrition, it is no magic. But would be nice to see the view of a specialist.

Feb 1, 2013 4:28am | report
madmvp

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madmvp

great comment, Adrian! Tested on my self, on maintenance calories, with the same macro split and same training regimen that I had no body composition changes by eating 6-7 meals or just 2. actually, i felt better eating less meals and it also fits better to my schedule. Same thing with eating "bro food" or IIFYM. So, let's face it...there's a lot of BS in the fitness/bodybuilding industry.

Feb 1, 2013 10:23am | report
E90335i

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E90335i

I am glad some one is writing about how 6x per day doesnt boost metabolism. I am sick of these wannabe trainers like Tony Horton and the Windsor pilates lady saying you need to eat frequent small meals all day.

Its all about calories in versus calories out. Eat too much you get fat, eat too little, you arent going to reach your bodybuilding goals.

Jan 29, 2013 8:41pm | report
ElecRattleSnake

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ElecRattleSnake

Its all about calories in versus calories out. Eat too much you get fat, eat too little, you arent going to reach your bodybuilding goals.

That about sums it up. The rest is minutia.

Jan 29, 2013 9:50pm | report
Spawn8214

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Spawn8214

Don't forget about types of calories, that's a big factor.

Jan 30, 2013 3:08pm | report
cmanbrahemus

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cmanbrahemus

Every swinging d*** with a credit card is a "certified personal trainer" now, and after reading a few internet articles and watching a couple youtube videos, they are nutrition experts. Come on. Eat big to bulk, eat clean to cut, eat until youre full, and wait a few hours. Alls good. My roomie eats 8 meals a day, and no changes in gym performance or body comp.

Mar 5, 2013 1:31pm | report
JRose13

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JRose13

It doesnt matter how often you eat, 1 big meal, 3 medium sized meals, 6 small meals, all comes down to calories in vs. calories out. Ive done the six meals per day, intermittent fasting, and just eating whenever if it mits my macros(IIFYM). All are good but one isnt better than the other, just comes down to personal preference

Jan 29, 2013 10:02pm | report
WannaGetYoked27

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WannaGetYoked27

This is exactly how I feel too!

Jan 30, 2013 12:50pm | report
Archinfinite

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Archinfinite

Same opinion here.

I like to stay a bit hungy throughout the day. The body is made to function at its best on an empty stomach and it allow the sympathetic system to fuction fully rather than compete with the parasympathetic. My best workouts were on an empty stomach.

^ I want to add that although I have a Kinesiology degree and got an A in human physiology this is only my opinion and experience which is in no way scientifically proven in so called "facts".

Jan 31, 2013 10:40pm | report
chambo21

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chambo21

great news. i start my day with 6 raw eggs an porage oats, full of protein and energy

Jan 30, 2013 1:53am | report
Joel3431

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Joel3431

Why the raw eggs? No diffrence in boiled and raw other than the very high chance of salmonella.

Jan 31, 2013 12:42am | report
Archinfinite

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Archinfinite

I can see eating some foods raw but oats? Fact: Cooking oats actually releases certain nutrients that would otherwise be bound to fiber.

The rest of this is just opinion: Only certain foods have extra benifits when eaten raw. Most likely the ones that were always around and we ate when foraging for food. Oats are a product of agriculture and were never meant to be eaten raw.

Joel has eggs covered. But maybe you are either aware of this or you know something I don't. I could always be wrong

Jan 31, 2013 10:46pm | report
bouboula

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bouboula

Whatch out for salmonella!
Great risk with row eggs

Feb 1, 2013 5:16am | report
Alexnolan96

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Alexnolan96

Actually to be honest, Its rare to get salmonella from raw eggs, Its a myth. The chicken itself has to have salmonella. Raw eggs are fine, but like joel said, Theres no point in them being raw no difference in nutrition!

Feb 2, 2013 7:40pm | report
Wiked94

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Wiked94

Cooked eggs also have a greater bioavailability than raw eggs.

Feb 13, 2013 8:41am | report
  • Body Stats
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transformerchad

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transformerchad

i lost around 45pounds eating 6 times a day , did IF for 4 months eating twice a day and lost nothing ... i BELIEVE that 6 small meals keeps th metabolism racing all day and raises BMR

Jan 30, 2013 2:03am | report
eladophir

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eladophir

broscience much?

Jan 31, 2013 9:18am | report
Archinfinite

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Archinfinite

I did it this way as well (not this much weight so congrats on the accomplishment). I also did it on 3 meals. And one meal as well. I also did 18 pounds over a week but that was to make weight and I would rather not talk about that.

Jan 31, 2013 10:49pm | report
AntonioWright

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AntonioWright

You are so wrong. What matters is total calories for the day.

Feb 11, 2013 12:15am | report
Showing 1 - 25 of 88 Comments

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