Nutritional dogma says that eating little and often is the best way to torch fat, but top sports nutritionist Simon Herbert has another way that could yield even faster and more convenient results.
When I was younger I was keen to get in shape, but struggled to put on weight until I asked a colossal guy in my gym how I could become as big as him. He laughed and replied: “You need to eat every 2-3 hours, boy, if you want to grow.” So that’s what I did: I became obsessed with eating at every possible point of the day.
Unfortunately, this quickly alienated me from the world. I spent too much time eating when I wasn’t hungry, which made me bloated, sluggish and with little time to do the things I loved. Plus, it cost me a small fortune. Fast-forward 16 years and my thought process has changed thanks to new research. There’s a statement you’ve no doubt heard: eat small and often to increase metabolism. It might be at the end of its life cycle.
Setting the record straight
Meal frequency is something you shouldn’t need to focus on. The key area you should be concerned with is how much food you eat over a 24-hour period based on your end goal. For fat loss, if you’re in a sensible calorie deficit (5-10% below the amount of calories it takes to maintain your weight), the fact you ate eight smaller meals over three larger meals would have a very small effect on the rate at which you burn body fat.
In fact, a study in Nutrition Reviews found that people who ate three meals a day lost more body fat than those who ate six meals on a calorie-matched diet. If you’re someone who enjoys five meals per day, then you should continue if it suits your lifestyle. If you’re a person who has a smaller appetite and chooses to eat bigger and less often, then perhaps three meals per day will work well for you, providing you are in a structured calorie deficit.
Eating for gains
What about maximum muscle gain? If you lead a normal life, you work and you have family, this can be time consuming. Eating a constant stream of nutrients might sound beneficial, but if you understand how the rise and fall of amino acid concentrations prime your system then it becomes apparent that the spacing of meals is actually more beneficial for muscle gain.
This means eating less frequently could actually be optimal. Research in the journal PLoS One found that four to five meals stimulate protein synthesis (muscle building) far better than the six-to-eight meal frequency.
What to do?
You could get extreme on both sides of the argument. People looking to eat for muscle feast far too frequently, which can become counterproductive to how they feel, due to things like the stress of preparing each meal. Eating more meals to increase metabolic rate is one of the biggest myths that stands in the industry at present.
Rather, eat the number of meals that fit your lifestyle. Just be aware that there will be no extra benefits to eating more meals, based on the total amount of calories eaten every day. If fat loss is your main goal, make sure you are in a 5-10% calorie deficit. Also, be certain your protein, fat and carbohydrate ratios are structured towards your training and current goals, and the number of meals you eat per day is suited to you.
If you’re looking to increase your lean body mass then four to five meals should do the trick. This simple change-up could take the chore out of eating and put the joy back in your kitchen.