The Many Meals Per Day Myth

Ah, the nutrition advice at the turn of the century:

Miss your 2-hr protein dose, and lose all your muscle like a survivor contestant.

survivor pic

If you were into weight training at the time (pre-2000), you probably remember carrying around emergency protein powder, and stressing about going an extra 30-45 minutes beyond a scheduled feeding.

How times have changed!

Part of the initial misconception arose because of research suggesting that we could only absorb 20g of protein at a meal.  Which was a questionable finding to begin with, that’s fortunately been debunked:

“…there is no practical upper limit to the anabolic response to protein or amino acid intake in the context of a meal.” Clinical Nutrition, 2013

The rest of it focused on regular protein feedings preventing catabolism (muscle loss), and increasing our resting metabolic (energy burning) rate. Although it’s since been proven that a higher meal frequency only seems to be an issue in a serious caloric deficit (1, 2), and the increased energy expenditure (TEF) after consuming food is a percentage (10%) not a fixed amount. So consuming 6x20g protein meals (300kcal) instead of 3x40g protein meals (600kcal) makes no difference, as the TEF is identical (1, 2, 3)

For a bodybuilder looking to pack on slabs of muscle, eating every few hours may make sense; considering how difficult it can be to find room for all that protein in one sitting. But for the general population, who’s looking to get and stay lean with minimal effort, aiming for >3-4 meals is simply unnecessary (1, 2, 3).

meal-prep-6-meals

Interestingly, some evidence suggests that an excessive number of meals may actually harm weight loss progress (1, 2, 3) because of increased hunger, and chronically elevated blood sugar. Which are both important considerations when you remember that more than 65% of the population is now diabetic or pre-diabetic, and struggling with their weight.

Some have even suggested that these individuals knock it down to 2 meals per day and skip breakfast. Although, I’d urge them to rethink that recommendation (for the majority), as it creates many of the same problems with generic calorie-restriction diets.

breakfast-skipping-weight-loss

The rationale behind breakfast skipping is to close the feeding window (to 6-8hrs) and extend the fasting window (to 16-18hrs) – to experience some of the benefits of fasting on a daily basis, while getting rid of the meal people seem to struggle with the most.

The challenge is, the majority of individuals struggling with their physique are not going to eat enough protein (2 x RDA) in this short window of time (1, 2), and will struggle more than an experienced dieter, or fat-adapated low-carber, with hunger and cravings.  Resulting in muscle loss (from inadequate protein) and fat gain (from poor food choices).

What’s worse, is that they probably won’t be lifting weights before their first meal (recommended by Intermittent Fasting supporters). As even if they wanted to, most are in jobs that wouldn’t allow a 1 or 2pm workout. Meaning no beneficial adaptation from muscle tissue (increased sensitivity), more problems with the elevated blood sugar seen after lunch and dinner (when breakfast is skipped), higher protein requirements (that will be difficult to hit) and a dieter eating all of their calories when fat tissue is most sensitive (1, 2).

An issue I discussed recently in an article for T-Nation:

“…research has made it quite clear that meal skippers put on more weight and body fat over time, while eating less food overall. More importantly, when the skipped meal is breakfast and it’s over-compensated for at dinner, that fat storage is super-charged.” Me, Fat-Loss & High Protein Breakfast

Or simply put, those seeking ‘fat loss’ without ‘muscle loss’ need to get used to eating a considerable amount of animal protein at the 3 main meals (1, 2), and prioritizing breakfast, before getting into restricted feeding periods. ESPECIALLY, if they were schooled in the ‘Eat Less’ and ‘Exercise More’ approach, and have done their fair share of calorie-restricted muscle-wasting diets in the past.

Stay Lean!
Coach Mike


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