Since it’s still the beginning of the year (I’m hoping you haven’t given up on your 2016 fitness and body composition goals yet) I figured I’d give you something else to chew on in regards to improving your body composition (i.e. Be less fat, look better naked, etc).
While the general population of fitness gurus (Often known as idiots if you ask me…) would like you to believe that fat loss is simple…
“Just burn more calories each day than you shove in your craw and you’ll be good to go!”
You know, since the 1st law of thermodynamics says that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it just changes the form, then calories in vs. calories out is the gold standard that waaay too many people believe in.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case (or you’d all be super skinny and ripped, right?) and things are much more complicated than that…
There are a ton of different factors that can affect your body’s ability to store and/or burn energy within that first law of thermodynamics, things like the type of calories consumed (PRO is both necessary for muscle growth and also more thermogenic than CHO & FAT) and what you’re doing for exercise (High-intensity exercise has been shown lead to greater fat loss and attenuate the negative effects of overeating).
So, while it would be great if the fat loss was as simple as burning more calories than you take in, there are a number of different factors.
One of the factors that I’d like to talk about today and most people have heard of is meal frequency.
I’ve had people tell me they only eat one big meal a day, at the end of the day.
I’ve had people tell me that they need to eat 6 meals per day to “keep the engine running”
I’ve also heard people profess that 3 meals per day are all you need!
So, today, I’d like to look at this topic, dig into some research, and figure out what might be the best thing for YOU to do… Or at least, give you something to test out.
Small, frequent meals
If you’ve paid attention to modern-day fitness and nutrition advice over the past decade then I’m sure you’ve heard someone say that eating multiple small meals throughout the day is the ticket to fat loss.
This notion originated with a study published in 1964 where researchers found that eating small, frequent meals throughout the day enhanced fat loss and helped with weight management.
Research has continued to look at this finding adding that there may be a relationship between eating frequency and your risk for obesity due to positive effects on appetite regulation, improved glucose tolerance, and an increased thermic effect.
While this all sounds great you’d probably be more interested to hear that increased meal frequency, especially the more frequent consumption of protein, has been shown to positively benefit your anabolic response in skeletal muscle which has the potential to maximize your resistance and strength training results and improve muscle mass.
While the last couple paragraphs might be enough for some of you to hop on the 6 meals a day bandwagon we need to look at more data to really understand if this is the best course of action and what might really be going on here.
When it comes to many of these studies, including a number I didn’t mention, there is conflicting information (Shocking, I know…) but as I said above, there are a number of factors involved and all that needs to be taken into consideration.
In a meta-analysis (study of studies) it was shown that eating more frequently resulted in both greater preservation of lean body mass (muscle) and a decrease in fat mass.
Which is a win for more frequent eating!
However, this meta-analysis was incredibly influenced by just one study, whereupon removal of this one study from the meta-analysis, basically resulted in the outcome becoming non-significant.
The study removed was looking at 12 male boxers (athletes) and found that when the athletes consumed six meals per day they lost less lean body mass (muscle). Again, this sounds great, but when you look at the study design you’ll quickly see that these athletes were on a 1200 k/cal per day diet, at the time, which is super low, so it shouldn’t be surprising that they maintained more lean body mass when they ate more frequently…
Maintaining & improving muscle mass
While the research into this whole meal frequency thing is significantly lacking, with no real answers you can take to the bank today, I’d like to at least leave you with some information that is probably beneficial to your goals (i.e. Getting bigger or stronger).
As I hinted at before, and you may already know, increasing amino acid concentrations in the blood (by eating more protein) can lead to an increase in muscle protein synthesis (a fancy term for help build muscle).
Well, researchers have shown that when amino acid concentrations in the blood change from low to high, muscle protein synthesis are stimulated. This is important when you think about meal frequency because it has been shown that consuming four doses of 20g whey protein every three hours will give you superior muscle building effects than those who consume 10g every 90 minutes or 40g every six hours.
These same phenomena could explain why those boxers in the study mentioned above demonstrated a greater ability to maintain lean body mass on six meals per day compared to the group who ate only two.
So more frequent protein consumption could equal bigger #gainz
Improving other markers of health
Getting super jacked and tan is great and all but I’m a big proponent of optimizing for long term health and fitness and not just short term super sweet gains.
So let’s look at meal frequency and a couple of other markers of health: blood sugar and cholesterol.
A study from 1989 compared a diet of either the standard 3 meals a day to an identical 17-snack per day diet and found that those eating 17 times per day (which is insane and on the far end of the extreme frequency scale) showed reduced fasting total cholesterol, reduced LDL (the bad stuff), and reduced insulin concentrations.
All good stuff.
Additionally, researchers dug into the data of a one meal per day study and found that those who only ate once per day had higher fasting glucose levels and impaired glucose tolerance.
All bad stuff.
However, they also looked at a six meal per day “high protein” diet (45% PRO, 35%CHO, 20% FAT) and found that both blood glucose and insulin levels were at their lowest.
Which is a win for both raising total protein consumption (within reason) and also increasing your meal frequency.
More confusion, fewer direct answers…
Sometimes I wish I could just pedal the same crap others blog about and tell you “the 3 weird ways to lose your belly fat!” which is all most of you really want to know but I just can’t do that.
It is important that you understand that the body is super complex and that the likelihood of you finding the 1 perfect thing for you to do to become jacked and shredded on your first try is very unlikely.
After working with literally thousands of people in my career I can tell you that understanding this point, that diet and performance nutrition is really just one big experiment, is going to get you farther in the long run than everyone else out there looking for that magic pill.
The vast majority of weight loss and/or fat loss studies typically look at overweight or obese individuals, which showed that meal frequency really doesn’t matter much especially when compared to the actual composition of those meals (Which is important).
So, best advice: If you’re fat, worry more about the quality of foods you consume first.
The one study that looked at athletes, at least in this meta-analysis, showed that frequent meals could lead to the attenuation of lean body mass, especially in athletes who are dieting. But again, that probably isn’t very helpful because if you’re training like an athlete, 1200 k/cals per day is likely a pretty big deficit and eating more frequently is likely to only help you maintain the lean body mass you have.
Ultimately, the biggest takeaway I see in all of this is that consuming small amounts of protein (~20g) every three hours can have an impact on your ability to build and maintain muscle mass while also improving a number of other markers of health (Cholesterol, glucose, etc.).
So if you are looking to maintain and/or improve lean body mass, and thus overall body composition, you may want to start with that.
What should you do first?
First, start writing everything down!
Seriously, I’ve written about this before when I talked about the 1 Simple Method for Improving your Body Composition…
In a study by Baker and Kirschenbaum (1993) it was noted that individuals who were more consistent at monitoring their diets lost more weight than those who did not. It was also found that during weeks where the participants were really on their game with each days monitoring they lost more weight than weeks where they were more lax and didn’t self-monitor as well.
I’ve mentioned before that nutrition is an incredibly individualized thing and to really get it dialed in you need to be spending a ton of time experimenting with what you are doing and that starts with actually knowing what you’re doing. So write it down.
I like to use this app: Chronometer
Second, make sure you’re consuming about 20g of protein every 3 hours
While much of the research we discussed above didn’t lead to any real concrete takeaways one thing that stood out the most is that frequent consumption of protein is probably a good idea and at the very least not harmful.
Areta, J., Burke, L., Ross, M., Camera, D., West, D., Broad, E., . . . Coffey, V. (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.
Holmstrup, M., Owens, C., Fairchild, T., & Kanaley, J. (2010). Effect of meal frequency on glucose and insulin excursions over the course of a day. E-SPEN, the European E-Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism, 5(6), E277-E280.
Jenkins, D., Wolever, T., Vuksan, V., Brighenti, F., Cunnane, S., Rao, A., . . . Josse, R. (1989). Nibbling versus Gorging: Metabolic Advantages of Increased Meal Frequency. New England Journal of Medicine N Engl J Med, 321(14), 929-934.
Leblanc, J., Mercier, I., & Nadeau, A. (1993). Components of postprandial thermogenesis in relation to meal frequency in humans. Canadian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, 71(12), 879-883.