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Optimal meal timing has been a very popular question over the past couple years in the industry. Extreme eating frequencies to obtain the best physique and training results are often advocated. It seems that most athletes swear by either eating 1-2 times per day or 6-8 times per day. This article will discuss the optimal meal frequency for maximizing training and physique outcomes. It is very important to note that meal frequency will not have an effect on fat-loss or metabolism. On the other hand, it can have an effect on maximizing muscle growth.
However, please note that if a certain meal pattern allows you to adhere to a diet, whether it’s a high or low meal frequency, then, by all means, stick to that meal pattern. It is far more important that you stick to the overall calories and macros rather than optimizing the minutia.
Protein: The Key to Frequent Eating
The advantages of frequent eating come from consuming multiple protein feedings throughout the day – multiple carb and fat dosages don’t hold the same benefits. Protein is made up of amino acids. One of the amino acids, leucine, is responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis, otherwise known as muscle building. You need to consume 2-3g of leucine per meal to stimulate protein synthesis (Norton et al., 2012). If you do not consume this minimum then you do not stimulate protein synthesis at all. This amount of leucine can be found in 20-40g of protein depending on the protein source. Carbs and fats will not stimulate protein synthesis – thus, we’re mainly concerned about the frequency of protein feedings.
Why Frequency Matters
Once you stimulate muscle protein synthesis by eating a protein-rich meal, the process remains stimulated for 3-5 hours (Norton et al., 2009). After this, it returns to baseline and you must eat another protein-rich meal to stimulate protein synthesis. To maximize protein synthesis, you should aim to eat a meal every 3-5 hours so that you can spend as much time as possible in peak protein synthesis.
Fasting does not allow you to maximize protein synthesis. A study by Mamerow and colleagues (2014) gave subjects 1.6g/kg of protein per day, an intake that has been shown to maximize protein synthesis (Morton et al., 2017). The researchers gave the participants 4 meals a day, however, one group received equal protein feedings per meal and the other received 2/3 of protein at dinner. It was found that the group with even protein distributions had 25% greater muscle protein synthesis. These findings demonstrate that you cannot “make-up” for missed protein feedings by simply having a large feeding at the end of the night.
Eating Too Frequently
Once you elevate the concentration of amino acids in the blood and stimulate protein synthesis, the body enters the “muscle-full” state. In this state, peak protein synthesis has been reached and your body has become unresponsive to further increases in amino acid concentration (Atherton et al., 2010). For your body to become responsive to protein again, you must wait for the amino acid concentration in the blood to fall again.
In other words; once you consume protein and stimulate protein synthesis, your body remains insensitive to it for a period of 2-3 hours. You must wait for the concentration of protein to fall before you can consume another dose of protein and stimulate protein synthesis again. It must “reset”. You cannot continuously eat protein in an attempt to maintain protein synthesis stimulated at all time (Bohé et al., 2001).
The Answer Lies in The Middle
If you eat too frequently, your body will be in a state where it’s unresponsive to protein feedings and this will not be optimal. If you don’t eat frequently enough, you will not spend enough time in a period of protein synthesis, which will not be optimal either. Thus, we can discard both the intermittent fasting approach of eating 1-2 times per day and the hard-core bodybuilder approach of eating 8-10 times per day. Neither will truly maximize muscle growth.
The truth is that you do not have to be extreme with your eating frequency; optimality lies in the middle. To maximize muscle-growth, aim to eat 4-5 meals per day spread between 3-5 hours apart. Each meal should contain between 20-40g of a high-quality protein source that contains a complete spectrum of amino acids and is leucine-rich.
Once again, please note that if you enjoy either fasting or a high meal-frequency then stick to it. It is far more important that you consistently adhere to a meal pattern that you enjoy rather than attempting to optimizing the minutia, failing and then falling off the diet. The information above is intended for individuals seeking to maximize muscle growth.