Spend any amount of time conversing over diet ideas with others in the fitness community and eventually the topic of meal frequency will arise. The dudes with the cut off T-shirts that bare nearly their entire torso will probably be the first to tell you that you need to eat several small meals spaced evenly throughout the day. The idea behind this method is that you keep your metabolism continuously burning and you’ll slowly lose fat and gain muscle at the same time. Some researchers have also echoed this theory (17) but does this philosophy stand up to science?
Frequency and Metabolism
Other researchers have shared this hypothesis over the years and one of the main theories behind this thought was that more frequent eating would lead to better appetite control and fewer calories consumed in subsequent meals throughout the day (23,24,25). Unfortunately, we actually have found that consuming more frequent meals leads to greater hunger and more overall desire to eat (19,20). Another train of thought was that increasing meal frequency might increase the amount of calories you burn in a day due to the thermic effect of food (15,16) – the thermic effect of food is simply the fact that it requires energy to digest and absorb food. Unfortunately, this theory has also been proven incorrect by science as several studies have found no difference in resting metabolism in subjects consuming different amounts of meals throughout the day (14,20,28).
This will be a pretty short piece because, frankly, this theory does not stand up to science. Only one study has found a significant difference in body composition effects when comparing meal frequencies (2) and that specific study fed significantly higher levels of protein to the group eating with more frequency. We know that protein is, by far, the most thermogenic and satiating nutrient (9) so not equating protein between groups makes this a poor correlation study when examining the effect of meal frequency. No other study found a significant difference in body composition changes when examining differences in meal frequency (22).
This effect, or lack thereof, has been seen in both lean individuals (7,11,26,27,29) and obese populations (4,5,6,8,21) alike. One study found no difference in trained boxers (12) so even athletes may not garner a significant benefit from increasing meal frequency.
With this in mind, the only real benefit to increasing meal frequency is that it could help you boost your total daily protein intake which could absolutely benefit metabolism and body composition.
Frequency and Bodybuilding
There is one caveat to the meal frequency conundrum, however. If you’re interesting in maximizing muscle growth, which I’m assuming most of our readers are, you may still want to eat more frequently throughout the day. Studies have found that increasing meal frequency, especially the frequency of protein intake, helps better maintain a positive protein balance (3,13,18,22) which is incredibly important for growth. The key here is to consume about 20-40 grams of protein every 3-hours to maintain high levels of protein synthesis and remain in a positive protein balance as much as possible (1,13,22).
The effect on protein balance has been shown in some studies that found that individuals who consumed diets in a caloric deficit were better able to maintain muscle mass when they increased protein intake frequency (22). So a major takeaway for bodybuilders is that if you’re undergoing a cutting phase, increasing meal frequency can definitely help maintain muscle mass – especially if you focus your meals on protein intake.
Overall, meal frequency has little effect on body composition and should not be the swan song of every gym bro when it comes to “increasing metabolism,” or, whatever. The main goal should be to increase protein, and if increasing meal frequency helps with that, then so be it. Ultimately, the best diet plan for you is the one that you can adhere to (10). If you find that you eat cleaner and feel better when eating more often throughout the day, then more power to you. Whatever helps you achieve your goals is going to best for you. Diets can be extremely individualized since people’s taste and preferences are so incredibly subjective – there will never be a, “one size fits all diet” and that’s perfectly okay. Stick to what you like, and when you’re conversationally approached by bro tank-wearing gym rats, turn your headphones up and hit the weights harder.
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- Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Gentile, C. L., Nindl, B. C., Brestoff, J. R., & Ruby, M. (2013). Increased protein intake and meal frequency reduces abdominal fat during energy balance and energy deficit. Obesity, 21(7), 1357-1366.
- Areta, J. L., et. al. (2013). Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal of Physiology, 591(9), 2319-2331.
- Bachman, J. L., & Raynor, H. A. (2012). Effects of manipulating eating frequency during a behavioral weight loss intervention: a pilot randomized controlled trial. Obesity, 20(5), 985-992.
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- Moore, D. R., et. al. (2012). Daytime pattern of post-exercise protein intake affects whole-body protein turnover in resistance-trained males. Nutrition & Metabolism, 9(1), 91.
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From being a mediocre athlete, to professional powerlifter and strength coach, and now to researcher and writer, Charlie combines education and experience in the effort to help Bridge the Gap Between Science and Application. Charlie performs double duty by being the Content Manager for The Muscle PhD as well as the Director of Human Performance at the Applied Science and Performance Institute in Tampa, FL. To appease the nerds, Charlie is a PhD candidate in Human Performance with a master’s degree in Kinesiology and a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science. For more alphabet soup, Charlie is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), an ACSM-certified Exercise Physiologist (ACSM-EP), and a USA Weightlifting-certified performance coach (USAW).