You hear a lot about meal frequency in the fitness industry, particularly the importance of eating small, frequent meals. The reasons sited for this are many; ranging from ‘stoking the metabolic fire’ to ‘supplying a constant stream of amino acids’, and a very frequent one you hear among bodybuilders is, ‘you have to eat multiple small meals as the body can only absorb 30-40 grams of protein at one given time’.
So how true is all this and is there any scientific studies that back it all up? Lets look at some of the more common ones step by step….
Eating small meals increases the metabolism.
This is simply not true. It is true however that every time we eat the the metabolic rate of the body increases, this is known as the thermal effect of food, (TEF) and that makes sense as it takes energy to digest. But here is the clincher; the amount your TEF increases is proportional to the amount to food you eat. In other words if you eat one huge meal, your metabolism will increase substantially, but if you eat a very small meal you get a small increase in the metabolism.
So if we look at the above picture it compares two people who eat the same amount of calories and same ratio of macro-nutrients. With the only difference being that one subject ate three large meals and the other ate six small ones, at the end of the day they both will have an equal increase in the metabolic rate. The only difference will be that for the person who ate six small meals, TEF will be raised by a small amount and be linear throughout the day. The second subject will experience three larger increases in TEF around meal times.
The above illustration is actually flawed as it suggests that frequent eating has a metabolic advantage. In truth, the energy expenditure and TEF will be the same as long as the amount of food eaten, the macro nutrient composition, and exercise performed are identical.
Here is a recent study that confirms this:
Lets move on to the next one…
Small, frequent meals supply a constant amount to amino acids to the muscles for optimal growth.
This is true, but are you at a disadvantage if you adhere to a lesser meal frequency? The evidence suggest this is not the case. Lets look at what happens when you eat a meal. In this case and a person who eats less frequently, a large protein meal. If you eat a large meal consisting of a large amount of protein, a large steak for instance, it will take many hours to fully digest. You will still be digesting that steak ten hours later and your blood stream will still be getting a constant amount of muscle building amino acids. Many trainees including myself increase size and strength without adhering to small frequent meals. All that really matters is that you are eating enough calories and the correct macro’s to serve the needs of the growth mechanism.
Finally lets look at the final one…
You can only digest 30 grams of protein at one time.
This is simply not true. You can digest up to 100 grams of more grams of protein eaten at one given time, but the only difference is that it will take a much longer time to be digested. A long subsequent fast would be needed to let the body do its job of fully digesting the meal. This amount of protein at one time of course would be very uncomfortable to eat for some, but it does prove that the old, ’30 grams of protein’ per meal myth is not backed up any solid scientific evidence.
The issue of meal frequency comes down to is personal preference and diet adherence. Some people find eating small, frequent meals easy and enables them to stay in great shape and serve their requirements. Others on the other-hand find this way of eating doesn’t work for them. I personally have always hated the idea of eating 6-7 small meals a day and it never worked for me. I was never satisfied eating tiny meals, and I always felt hungry. I also found the need to plan the small meals very tiresome, along with carrying the meals around in tupperware like many bodybuilders do. It wasn’t for me and I thrived when I switched to eating two to three larger meals. I never lost muscle like many warned I would, I actually have achieved the leanest most muscular condition of my life.