Meal Frequency and Body Composition: Does it Even Matter?

It is commonly believed that eating smaller, but more frequent meals will increase rates of fat loss when compared to a calorie matched diet that consists of eating fewer meals per day.

THEORY

A plethora of data has emerged that energy balance dictates rates of fat loss; consume fewer calories than you expend will result in weight and body fat loss. Within this, various nutritional factors have been proposed to enhance rates of fat loss; such as the number of meals consumed within a 24 hour period. Observational studies have reported favourable effects of increasing meal frequency on body weight maintenance – This could partially be explained through improved appetite control, glucose homeostasis and the increased thermic effect of food.
Evidence would also suggest that increasing meal frequency would favour muscle growth through more frequent stimulations in muscle protein synthesis (MPS) lead to an improved net protein balance. Theoretically, the increased gain in muscle mass may lead to a slight increase in basal metabolic rate (BMR).  However, it is uncertain to what extent this will have on BMR and the ability to lose body fat. Despite sound theoretical rationale, studies examining this topic are often conflicting due to the population being tested and methodological designs.  Furthermore, anecdotal evidence through social media platforms would have you believe that this is true. Therefore, it is still inconclusive whether a rigid number of meals can be prescribed to maximise fat loss.

ACTUAL

It’s been reported in a recent meta-analysis by Schoenfeld et al (2015) that there was no significant difference in body weight changes when consuming 1-2 meals, 3-4 meals and 5+ meals per day during periods of calorie restricted dieting.  However, bodyweight changes doesn’t account for variances in muscle mass and fat mass. Therefore, when the number of meals consumed per day was tested against losses in body fat, there is a trend that favours a higher meal frequency of 5+ meals when compared to consuming 1-2 meals per day.  This result was from analysing the findings of 10 studies that met the inclusion criteria for the meta-analysis. However, the authors noted that one study investigating meal frequency in boxers skewed the results and favoured a higher meal frequency. Once this study was removed from the analysis, no favourable trend was observed on meal frequency and body fat loss. Therefore, 9 out of 10 studies do not favour following a higher meal frequency, where 1 of 10 studies did.
Furthermore, dieting strategies such as intermittent fasting consistently displays favourable results in both weight and fat loss. Generally speaking, it’ll be very difficult to consume 5+ meals in a shortened eating window, i.e. 8 hours – therefore this naturally decreases meal frequency and caloric intake. At this stage, it would be difficult in giving an exact recommendation regarding meal frequency and fat loss as the data is inconclusive and is predominantly done in untrained individuals with moderate to low protein intakes. Therefore it’s unsure how meal frequency would effect a more athletic population with higher protein intakes – the study looking at weight control in boxers may provide some future insight that a higher meal frequency (6 Vs 2 meals per day) may be more beneficial. For now, I would mostly suggest that personal preferences, schedule and goals will dictate the number of meals consumed per day for fat loss purposes only.

FOR MUSCLE GAIN

As the Schoenfeld et al (2015) meta-analysis primarily observed untrained individuals with lower protein intakes that may be sub-optimal for muscle hypertrophy – findings must be interpreted with some caution. The findings would suggest that a higher meal frequency doesn’t appear to be advantageous for increases in muscle mass and that either meal frequency; 1-2 meals, 3-4 meals and 5+ meals per day will suffice for muscle mass retention. However, short term studies would suggest that a higher and evenly distributing protein intake throughout the day may lead to superior rates of muscle protein synthesis and subsequently gains in muscle hypertrophy. For an in depth review on how to optimise meal frequency and protein intake for muscle gain, check out my free downloadable resource that can be found HERE. For those with time constraints, here’s the cliff note on protein and meal frequency:
  • Once protein is consumed in the correct dose, it stimulates the mechanisms responsible for muscle growth. This mechanism is referred to as muscle protein synthesis, or MPS for short.
  • Once MPS has been stimulated, it remains ‘switched on’ for approx. 3 hours in smaller meals, and 5-6 hours in larger calorie containing meals.
  • Consuming another protein meal within this window will not further increase MPS despite the provision of amino acids – This is known as the ‘muscle full’ effect or refractory period.
  • MPS resembles a light switch – once you’ve turned a light switch on, you can’t press the button harder to make the light shine brighter. You have to wait until it is ‘turned off’ before turning it back on again. Similar to consuming protein, once the mechanisms are switched on, they’re on.
  • You need a sufficient dose of high quality protein in order to maximally stimulate MPS . The dose and type of protein required can be found in the free download HERE.
  • Since MPS is ‘turned on’ for approx. 3-5 hours after protein is consumed – The aim will be to have 3-4 protein rich meals per day to maximise the daily ability to build muscle. By default, this leads to a high(er) meal frequency.

Therefore, the more frequently MPS can be stimulated, the better – as each time you stimulate MPS, you initiate muscle growth. However, be mindful of the ‘switch’ analogy.

APPLICATION

Meal frequency should be tailored to the individual and should account for; preferences, schedule, lifestyle and goals. For fat loss purposes only, meal frequency doesn’t appear to dictate fat loss assuming that a calorie restricted diet is followed. Therefore, you can follow a 1 meal per day type of diet assuming that nutrient targets are met, however this may be a trade off with poorer energy, concentration and appetite throughout the day, anecdotally speaking. For gaining muscle mass, it would be prudent to follow a higher meal frequency to hypothetically maximise muscle gain. If maximising muscle gain isn’t a higher priority, then following your preferred meal frequency appears to retain muscle mass with moderate protein intakes. In this case, focus on achieving your daily nutrient requirements.

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