The Meal Frequency Fallacy

lunchFor decades the mainstream has advocated something dreamt up by the bodybuilders of yesteryear. That something was the concept that the metabolic rate is enhanced by eating more smaller meals, rather than fewer larger meals. In more recent times, some bodybuilders have taken this to new levels, aiming for upwards of 8-12 meals per day (I’m looking at you, Jay Cutler!) Incidentally, I can also only imagine that the “thirty grams of protein per sitting” myth either gave rise to this, or was born out of it.

And it makes sense, right? You break your meals down to every 2-3hrs thereby supplying a constant stream of amino acids for muscle building, and helping control appetite much easier. It has regularly been described as the difference between throwing all your firewood to the flame at once only to burnout faster, versus putting smaller amounts on at a time thereby maintaining the flame for longer. But does a higher meal frequency really help control appetite and stimulate metabolism?

For the first question, a recent study from the journal, Obesity, has looked into this subject by comparing six smaller meals eaten every two hours against three larger ones eaten every four hours. What they discovered may come as quite a surprise to many of you hardened iron veterans. Not only did they determine that six meals is not better than three for appetite control, they also claim that three meals per day is actually better! The study also looked into the satiating effect of higher protein intake (15% vs 25%), but as far as I am concerned that is already well-known as scientific fact.

What about stimulating metabolic rate? A study published a couple of months ago looked into this, by putting subjects on a calorie restricted diet and comparing the effects of six meals (three meals with three snacks) versus three meals, much like the study discussed previously. Both groups had the same caloric restriction, with the only difference being the meal frequency. The researchers found no difference between groups.

So based on these two studies we can conclude that the concept of smaller, more frequent meals may in fact be absolute fallacy. However, these studies do not look into parameters for hypertrophy, but to be honest, I will not be holding my breath that they will look into it anytime soon. This is because studies are looking into ways of reducing and eliminating obesity and other metabolic diseases. Unfortunately, the best ways of building muscle is not of paramount importance (although some AIDS journals do look into ways of reversing the muscle-wasting effects of the disease).

I also cannot throw out the broad statement that fewer, larger meals are ideal for everyone due to genetic differences between the population. For instance, some people find that they excel in gym performance and note superior physical effects by splitting meals. Others with high metabolic rates who find it harder to put on weight (the so-called “ectomorphs”) find it a necessity to split meals in order to be able to consume sufficient calories. However, those who fit the “endomorphic” prototype may want to consider eating fewer meals while dieting in order to take advantage of the superior appetite regulation.

Leidy HJ, Armstrong CL, Tang M, Mattes RD, Campbell WW. The Influence of Higher Protein Intake and Greater Eating Frequency on Appetite Control in Overweight and Obese Men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Mar 25.

Cameron JD, Cyr MJ, Doucet E. Increased meal frequency does not promote greater weight loss in subjects who were prescribed an 8-week equi-energetic energy-restricted diet. Br J Nutr. 2009 Nov 30:1-4.

About the Author

Matt Cahill has worked extensively in the nutritional supplement field, and is the former CEO of Designer Supplements. During his time in the field has researched and developed prohormones, testosterone boosters, and other related compounds, both for his own company and others.