A hugely debated topic among bodybuilders and fitness gurus is the optimal number of meals to eat per day to build muscle, lose fat and increase strength. Many people will eat every 2-3 hours whilst others will only eat once per day or within a small window of time and others do something in between.
Is there an ideal frequency for consuming meals for optimal muscle growth, metabolism and fat loss? Well let us take a look at some common claims behind meal frequency and the research behind this with the goal of working out how often you should eat meals to most effectively meet your goals.
People who eat multiple meals throughout the day will often cite an increased metabolic rate as the reason for doing so and several studies have investigated these claims with the results being pretty conclusive.
Basically eating the same calorie count spread through 2, 5 or 7 meals per day made no difference in either healthy weight, overweight or obese individuals.
An increased meal frequency does not affect metabolic rate so long as dietary intake is matched, total calories consumed matter more than frequency. Consume meals that match your dietary needs each day and don’t concern yourself with needing to eat every 2-3 hours.
I have been told before that eating 5-6 mini meals every day will help achieve fat loss goals faster. It sounds great in theory, eat more frequently and still lose weight, findings on this subject however are not so positive.
The bulk of the studies investigating the effects of meal frequency on weight loss have been performed on overweight and obese individuals. When daily caloric intake was matched, no weight loss changes were noted for people having just one meal or nine tiny meals, three verses six meals, two verses 3-5 meals or three versus six meals has been observed.
Even individuals at a healthy weight, no changes were observed in weight loss when consuming say one meal versus six meals per day, the same went for other healthy weight participants of one versus five meals.
Meal frequency does not seem to have an effect on weight maintenance or weight loss when caloric intake is matched. Fewer calories will see more results when it comes to weight loss rather than the number of meals being consumed.
Many people eat more meals throughout the day in an attempt to build more muscle. Based on studies looking at the rate of protein synthesis, the rate at which protein is made in the muscle, which means more muscle growth. Following feeding, some researchers have suggested a meal frequency of 3-5 meals per day, with protein intake evenly distributed, is optimal to maximize and stimulate muscle protein synthesis rates and therefore muscle growth.
These studies have all been acute however, they gave subjects one protein filled meal, tracked rates of protein synthesis for a few hours and that was it, we really need to look at long-term data to see if over time the number of meals you eat a day has significant impact on muscle growth.
Looking at studies lasting from 2-8 weeks, for both overweight and healthy weight with a good BMI, it doesn’t appear that the number of meals consumed each day has an impact on lean mass. Even for individuals who are dieting, eating six meals per day seems to have no benefit than eating three meals per day when it comes to lean muscle mass.
Looking at these studies, it would appear that meal frequency has no effect on muscle mass, however these studies were not done in athletes who regularly lift weights.
Only one study to date has been conducted in physically active individuals. The researchers at Nagoya (Japan) recruited male boxers and had them consume 1,200 calories per day whilst dieting for a fight. Half of the participants consumed six meals per day and the other half had two meals per day. After two weeks, there was greater muscle retention with six meals per day.
The caloric intake was only 1,200 calories per day and protein intake was only 60g per day (around 0.45g per pound of bodyweight) both of which are far lower than most males who are dieting with the goal of muscle retention, these results should be taken with a bit of caution and further research is needed in meal frequency in athletes.
Meal frequency does not seem to have an effect on muscle mass when dietary intake is constant but more research is needed into athletes who regularly lift weights. Focus on consuming adequate calorie and protein intake (around 30g of protein per meal) while increasing strength in the gym to maximize muscle growth.
Based on current research, meal frequency does not seem to be as important as originally thought for speeding up metabolic rate, aiding fat loss or increasing muscle growth. This is supported in practice by individuals consuming a range of meal frequencies from one to eight meals per day who have developed great physiques and achieved their fitness goals.
There is no best meal frequency. Total calories and macronutrient composition seem to play a greater role in fat loss and muscle growth. Find a meal frequency that allows you to be consistent with your nutrition plan then muscle-building and fat loss will become much easier and much more consistent.
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