What does the science really say about eating 6-8 times per day? Read this and find out.
Like many T Nation readers, I grew up with bodybuilding nutrition. That's right, I studied Championship Bodybuilding by Chris Aceto like it was the Bible, snuggled Arnold's Encyclopedia every night, and waited anxiously every month to read my favorite bodybuilding magazines from cover to cover.
Bodybuilding-style nutrition (six small meals, specific macronutrient ratios and food distribution patterns, etc.) is one of the most effective ways to change a body, no doubt about it. Anyone who tells you it doesn't has never done it, with any real consistency, dedication, or discipline.
But as I've worked with more people in the real world, and as my theories have evolved, I've begun to ask myself three major questions regarding this approach.
1. Is a traditional max fat loss/pre-contest plan sustainable?
The answer for the majority is no, even for the most hardcore of athletes. Many competitors can attest to this experience firsthand: post-contest bingeing, weight rebound, and the negative hormonal feedback loop associated with extreme training/nutrition approaches and/or drug protocols.
Anyone can eat a certain way when motivation is high, be it for a contest, a new photo on Facebook, or even just that summertime pool party where you know the hot bartender you've been eyeballing for months is going to be attending.
But what is the preparation for that one big day doing to your long term metabolic and hormonal health, and your ability to get lean the next time around?
Is doing no carbs for weeks at a time, three hours of cardio a day, and having the personality of a snail and the libido of a corpse the only way to get in shape? No six-pack is worth that.
Some will justify bulking and cutting cycles as necessary, but for many it's a simple yo-yo scenario, despite it being part of an athletic realm. That's not sustainable, nor is it good for your long-term physique goals or overall health. I've seen former competitors yo-yo themselves right into obesity, type II diabetes, and a lifetime of health and body composition struggles.
If that route sounds appealing to you, then great, go for it man. To each their own. I'm more interested in finding a plan that's sustainable for the rest of my life, and allows me to be in shape year-round.
2. Is it functional?
For years I had no problem getting to the grocery store every other day, cooking a crap-load of food twice a week, packing a man purse full of Tupperware every day, etc. Discipline and dedication are just part of my personality.
I falsely assumed the same was true for everyone when I started in this game. You want to get in shape? Then do what you f#!king gotta do to achieve that goal.
But as I've worked with more real people in the real world, I've come to realize that this isn't as functional or realistic for most outside of the fitness industry.
Have you ever consulted with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose industry moves at a thousand Tweets per second? Have you ever advised a doctor or a lawyer who can be in surgery or court for a half day at a time? Or a college kid who has a full load of classes, is working a part-time job to pay for tuition, and is trying to squeeze in just enough time to try to get laid?
No stopping off for tuna and broccoli every two hours for any of these demographics. Pro Tan and "pube trimming sessions" are the furthest things from their mind.
Is eating 6-8 small meals a day functional and sustainable for the next year, five years, or the rest of your life when priorities change and you're chasing other career goals, yet still want to be in good shape?
If you are leaning towards "not really," the next question is, is it absolutely necessary to achieve results, or is there another way?
3. Are there alternative meal frequency approaches for general fat loss and physique enhancement?
I'm not talking bodybuilding competition diets here, so I don't need a bunch of angry bodybuilders throwing their soiled posing panties at me, unless you're a woman, of course.
Getting stage-ready is something different. If that's your pursuit, I hope you're following an informed approach and not some outlandish protocol formulated from gym rats. If you're in doubt, hook up with an expert coach. I'm a fan of the Mountain Dog myself – someone who combines education with practical "street" experience.
Furthermore, I'm not talking about bulking phases or guys eating strictly for improving athletic performance. If your calorie requirements are 5000+, you probably have no choice but the 5-6 meals a day route.
This article, however, and my writings in general, is geared towards the other 90% of the noncompetitive strength-training population that's just looking for a sustainable approach to cutting up and being able to say, "I look good. I mean really good. Hey everyone, come and see how good I look."
Just as I ask that you not get caught up in ADA or Paleo dogma, I ask that you not get caught up in bodybuilding/fitness nutrition dogma. If you can maintain some objectivity, the reality is there are other methods and approaches to getting into great shape.
The late, great Serge Nubret used to eat two meals a day composed of pounds of horsemeat with rice and beans. I know what some of you are thinking – steroids – but that's not just what worked for him. Many of his non-bodybuilding clients reported great body composition transformation results as well.
The three-square meals a day approach gets bashed in our industry and is often criticized as being counterproductive for fat loss and physique enhancement.
However, this is most likely because the typical Y2KAmerican Diet is used as the representative/control group of this approach – mocha and pastry for breakfast, sandwich and chips for lunch, pizza and cookies for dinner.
This is problematic for comparison because these are not the typical meals eaten by someone pursuing body composition transformation.
It's more the suboptimal food choices that are the problem, not the meal frequency pattern itself. Three meals a day can work just fine for fat loss provided you're making good food selections.
To contrast, the traditional Japanese diet (fish, lean meats, eggs, vegetables, rice, sweet potato, low refined foods, etc.) yields some of the lowest obesity and diabetes rates in the world. And don't give me "genetics," there are studies that show when native Japanese people switch to more westernized dietary patterns, biomarkers of health skydive and body fat skyrockets.
I'm not trying to get everyone to start feeling like they're "turning Japanese," but you can certainly learn a thing or two from their dietary approach, just like you can from any effective approach (Paleo, Mediterranean).
While I think a Paleo Diet is a good starting template for an overweight and sedentary office worker, I think the traditional Japanese diet is a good template for a strength-training athlete taking a healthy approach to physique enhancement by way of a carb-based approach.
Here's a typical day. I've adjusted the totals to better fit a 180-pound dude as opposed to a 95-pound Geisha:
Breakfast: 2-3 whole eggs, 4oz fish, 1-cup rice, sea vegetables *, green tea.
Lunch: 8 oz teriyaki chicken, 1-cup rice, mixed vegetables
Dinner: 12 oz salmon or mackerel, miso soup, 1-cup rice, spinach salad.
Dessert: 1 piece whole fruit or 1/2 cup mashed sweet potato.
This supplies our 180-pound bodybuilder with a great base diet of roughly 180g of protein, 180g of carbs, and 40-50g of fat as byproduct of protein foods.
* Sea vegetables are basically, well, seaweed, which might not sound appetizing but have been a staple of the Japanese diet for centuries. Sea vegetables also offer one of the broadest ranges of minerals of any food including iron, magnesium, zinc, and especially iodine. The name "sea vegetables" is actually a broad term for a number of vegetables like nori, hijiki, wakame, arame, kombu, and dulse.
The next step is on training days to add the appropriate peri-workout nutrition protocol. For lean guys or those trying to gain as much mass as possible, the original Plamza™ is the most effective (natural) method I've ever encountered.
However, heavier-set guys or those with weight class restrictions may be better suited with the Jim Wendler 531 Stack, which yields significant yet less dramatic gains in size and strength.
Meal Frequency Cliffs Notes
Back when I was in school, I always had to make up for spending too much time wet daydreaming about the handful of scintillatingly hot girls in my Organic Chemistry by cramming with Cliffs Notes. Here's the Cliffs Notes version of just some of the science on meal frequency:
A study by Bellisle, et al. looked at the proposed benefit of frequent meals on the thermic effect of food (TEF). While the researchers found support that TEF was higher with frequent feedings, the results were neither unanimous nor significant, concluding that the intake side of the energy balance equation is still paramount.(1)
Another study by Burke et al. looked at equal 24-hour carbohydrate intakes divided into feedings every four-hours versus every hour. There was no significant difference in muscle glycogen storage between the two groups.(2)
Finally, a study by Norton found that while frequent "dosing" of amino acids is common practice, it's unlikely that eating another meal 2-3 hours after the first would be sufficient to induce another rise in protein synthesis since amino acid/leucine levels are already elevated.
Norton concludes that it may, therefore, be more useful to consume larger amounts of protein at a meal and wait longer between protein doses than the 2-3 hours typically recommended in the bodybuilding community.(3)
Disregarding personal bias or tradition and looking at the objective science, clearly there's no major difference between smaller, more frequent meals or larger meals spaced out further apart for fat loss, and metabolic factors related to fat loss (dietary induced thermogenesis, 24-hour energy expenditure, etc.).
Now, some will use this science to "hear what they want to hear" and bash bodybuilding nutrition. "I knew it. Three-meals a day is superior to the six-small-meals a day approach. Bodybuilders are obsessive, compulsive idiots."
That's not what the research is saying. It's saying they're relatively equal. Translation? Both can be effective in a real-world protocol.
Remember the hierarchy of fat loss: Optimum food choices, total calories, and targeted macronutrient ratios based on individual factors are the most important steps in designing an effective fat loss diet. If these variables are controlled for, meal frequency doesn't matter as much.
The optimum meal frequency pattern for you is whatever pattern helps you consistently stick to your diet the most. The most sustainable and functional approach in your world is the best approach for you.
In other words, the physiology of meal frequency doesn't matter so much. Both science and anecdotal evidence prove that. It's the psychological and social factors that are the most crucial variables in your decision.
This, of course, requires some self-experimentation on your part. How does meal frequency fit into your daily schedule, career demands, lifestyle habits, and social patterns?
Some find that eating smaller, more frequent meals allows for better blood sugar control, makes them feel more energetic, and makes them less prone to bingeing and cheating. Although they're eating smaller, calorie-controlled meals, psychologically they like the idea that another meal is always right around the corner. They like staying ahead of hunger, or that never hungry, never quite full feeling.
If they do go a long period without food and are hungry, they can't make good food choices. They end up overeating junk. A traditional fitness/bodybuilding approach may work better for this group.
Many fitness athletes have a fear that if they ever go more than three hours without food, the body will start cannibalizing itself and they'll lose all their hard-earned muscle tissue. These guys have a "feed the machine" mentality. Regardless of physiological truths, psychology is a key component of dietary success. Smaller, frequent meals may be the best approach for this demographic as well.
With busy career demands, and an unwillingness to pack foods and carry around Tupperware everyday, some find that eating 6-8 small meals a day is hyper-inconvenient and unrealistic for their lifestyle. They can't consistently fit in six balanced and complete meals a day. What ends up happening is they have a few solid meals and then just eat snack foods – usually of the highly refined and processed "high carb plus high fat American" type.
Furthermore, when they eat, they like to eat full, complete, satiating meals. The small fitness-style meals don't satisfy appetite and leave them constantly hungry and craving more. Psychologically, it makes them feel like they're constantly depriving themselves or they're always "on a diet."
Finally, there are those whose career or lifestyle demands fit neatly around the traditional three-meals-a-day approach. After all, this is the pattern that society and civilization has set up as the normal structure in most cultures. We have our breakfast business meetings, our lunch breaks, and our social dinners.
Three-square meals may be the easiest approach to consistently follow for those working professionals who are not fitness professionals or athletes. Slaving away trying to fit into a fitness approach of eight small meals a day may be unrealistic and counterproductive.
Just remember, food choices are critical. Three square meals a day with good food choices will yield much different results than three square meals a day of junk foods, and average Y2K American food choices.
So to bring closure to this piece and sum it all up in a short, sweet sound bite, three meals a day can work – if that works better for you.
Next up on the hierarchy is food distribution. In the Samurai Diet approach I talk about a modified bodybuilding-style approach to protein and fat intake, and an intermittent fasting-style approach to carbohydrate intake. Am I just confused or am I onto something? Noodle with that, and I'll catch up with you soon.
- Bellisle et al. 1997. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70.
- Burke, et al. 1996. Muscle glycogen storage after prolonged exercise: effect of the frequency of carbohydrate feedings. Am J Clin Nutr 64(1): 115-119.
- Norton, L. 2008. Optimal protein intake and meal frequency to support maximal protein synthesis and muscle mass. SlideShare.