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Meal Frequency

"Eat 5-6 meals a day. It’ll not only help you stay fuller for longer but it’ll also boost your metabolism."

Now how many times have you heard this from a fellow trainer, magazine, personal trainer, health professional or friend? The idea of having 5-6 small meals a day has become so entrenched in the health and fitness world that it is hardly ever questioned. But what does the research really say about its effectiveness? Addressing that exact question is a recently released review paper and position stand from the International Society of Sports Nutrition. This article takes a closer look at what that paper has found and concluded.

Meal Frequency Findings

For those low on time, here are the overall conclusions from the review paper and position stand

  1. Increased meal frequency in athletic populations have shown positive results in terms of altered body composition.
  2. Increased meal frequency was able to improve cholesterol and fat levels in the blood.
  3. Increased meal frequency was also seen to decrease insulin levels in the blood – which may inhibit fat storage.
  4. Increased meal frequency may be able to shift the ratio of fat to carbohydrate oxidation in favour of conserving carbohydrates.
  5. Increased meal frequency positively affects muscle protein synthesis.
  6. Increased meal frequency was associated with a decrease in lean body mass loss during a decreased calorie diet for weight loss.

Here's a more in depth look at the studies reviewed in the paper.

Body Composition & Body Weight

The few studies that have looked at athletic populations have found consuming more than 3 meals per day have been able to help improve body composition.

Advantages of Increased Meal Frequency

In terms of long term health, cholesterol levels and insulin response are two of the most important factors which can affect development of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Several large studies have looked at gorging (1 large meal) or nibbling (many small meals throughout the day) and found that gorging led to increases in fat and cholesterol in the blood. More frequent meals causes a slight decrease in cholesterol. Other studies were also able to show that the bad cholesterol (LDL-cholesterol) was able to be reduced with increased meal frequency. Still other studies were able to show that eating more but smaller meals throughout the day, was able to reduce the amount of insulin in the blood. Although insulin is an amazing anabolic hormone, elevated levels for long periods throughout the day can mean increased fat storage.

Metabolism & Regular Meals

The word metabolism has a few meanings. The most widely used definition however is our body’s rate of energy utilisation. The 5-6 meals mantra has always promoted its ability to boost metabolism. As you may or may not already know, your body’s metabolism is separated intro three categories; basal metabolic rate (the energy used by your body during quiet sitting), thermic effect of food (the energy burned from eating food) and activity metabolism (energy used for any other activity done throughout the day). With respect to meal frequency and its ability to affect the thermic effect of food, there is some evidence to suggest that the ratio between fat and carbohydrate oxidation was able to change favourably to conserve carbohydrates with more meals per day. Protein metabolism studies and meal frequency have also been investigated. Earlier studies showed that nitrogen loss was similar in those eating less meals and those eating more meals. However, nitrogen loss as a marker is evidence of total body protein turnover. More recent studies have looked at meal frequency on muscle protein synthesis. The studies were able to show that a more even distribution of daily protein over several meals were able to promote greater muscle protein synthesis moreso than 3 meals alone.

Hunger & Satiety

Hunger and fullness are both important factors affecting total energy consumption throughout the day. Feeling hungry can put you at risk of behaviours such as gorging and binge eating. The evidence surrounding meal frequency and its effect on hunger and satiety are conflicting. While some studies has shown decreased consumption with smaller more frequent meals and a greater feeling of fullness, other studies could not find any significant connections.

Active People & Meal Frequency

Not many studies looking at effects of meal frequency have focused on athletes as a population group. Some that have however have found quite positive results including improved body composition, conservation of lean body mass with dieting and even improved anaerobic power (sprints). However it should be noted though that athletes and highly trained individuals usually have a higher meal frequency intake anyway as a way to make use of the benefits of nutrient timing.

Meal Frequency - Recommendations

There is a mass of information and studies out there regarding meal frequency and its effects on our body. As a bodybuilder or serious gym-goer, you probably already have more than the typical 3 meals per day, and now hopefully you have a clearer idea of why. Ensure that each meal contains a substantial amount of protein (20-30g) or essential amino acids (10-15g) to optimise muscle protein synthesis. Protein shakes and bars can be a convenient way to ensure that you are meeting this requirement every 2.5-3 hours. WIthout this, you may be shortchanging your ability to gain lean muscle.

1 La Bounty PM et al. ‘International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: meal frequency.’ Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2011, 8:4

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