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The value of nutrient timing and meal frequency has been a hot topic of debate in recent years.
Most studies have shown that, for us simple folks who aren’t making a living off of training, it just simply doesn’t matter that much.
But, since there’s still a lot of confusion on the topic, I’m hoping this article will help address some of it.
How many meals per day should you have in order to look great naked?
As with most things in the fitness world, the answer is highly individual – it depends.
The number one factor to success while dieting is adherence over the long term. That is, your eating pattern should reflect your lifestyle and personal preferences, in a way that promotes consistency and sustainability.
With that said, there are instances where less general guidelines can be recommended:
- You’re cutting at very low calories
- You’re bulking at very high calories
- You’re an endurance athlete, or a strength athlete dealing with some serious training volume
Let’s briefly discuss each scenario below.
1. Extreme Low-Calorie Diets
In a low-calorie diet, there are physiological and psychological benefits to a lower meal frequency compared to the usual “you must eat every 2 hours to keep your metabolism running” nonsense.
Suppose you are on a 1,200 kcal diet. You could eat multiple meals a day, such as 6 small meals of 200 calories each, as an example.
Alternatively, you could eat 2 or 3 much bigger meals at 600 or 400 calories each, respectively.
As you can see, both feeding patterns respect the caloric restriction of the individual, however they both offer slightly different outcomes.
With a very high meal frequency (anything above 6 or 7 meals per day), you’ll never feel truly satisfied after each meal. Additionally, because each meal is so small in size, you will be constantly preoccupied with what’s coming in next, which can foster an unhealthy obsession with food.
On the other hand, a very low meal frequency of 2 or 3 meals will have you going a long time without food between meals, which increases the possibility of hunger creeping in.
With that in mind, it might be in your best interest to set your eating frequency somewhere in the middle, consuming around 3 or 4 moderately-sized meals instead, which will leave you feeling full for longer and allow for the intake of more calorie-dense foods, which can also have psychological benefits.
It’s worth noting that food quality also plays a role in satiety. Choosing slower-digesting carbohydrates with a high fiber content can help with feelings of fullness during a caloric deficit, which may keep cravings at bay in between meals.
With regards to training, in a low-calorie diet, it is a good idea to have at least one protein-heavy meal in your system prior to exercising. This will ensure you have the nutrients necessary to inhibit the breakdown of muscle protein, which becomes an even greater issue while dieting.
2. Extreme high-calorie diets
At the other end of the spectrum, we have individuals who consistently struggle to get in their required number of calories.
If you’re on a 4,000 kcal diet, for example, it might be wise to split it into 5 or 6 meals instead of trying to consume 2 or 3 very large and calorically dense meals, unless that’s something you personally enjoy. As always, this will come down to personal preference.
The issue of nutrient timing with high-calorie diets, in the context of peri-workout nutrition, isn’t as significant, as individuals who are bulking will be taking in the necessary nutrients often and in large quantities throughout the day. Therefore, they can count on substrates circulating the bloodstream at virtually any time of the day, which will both aid in training performance as well as recovery.
Once again, each individual must look at their specific goals and lifestyle to choose what will suit them best.
As a general guideline, those on very high calorie diets tend to fare better eating anywhere from 3 to 6 meals a day.
3. You’re an endurance athlete, or a strength athlete dealing with some serious training volume
Most studies looking at the effects of meal frequency on body composition focus on either the overweight or sedentary populations, with very few direct applications to athletes.
With that said, some recent studies have discussed the possibility of a higher frequency eating pattern as being beneficial towards performance and body composition of endurance and strength-training athletes, specifically those in hypocaloric situations.[3,4]
One meta-analysis by Bounty et al concluded that a higher meal frequency could in fact result in greater retention of lean body mass, with an increase in fat loss, muscle mass and anaerobic power. This may be due to the anabolic nature of exercising, which may result in more efficient partitioning of nutrients throughout the body.
It’s worth noting that most studies looking at the athletic population do not directly aim to alter meal frequency, but rather involve an observation of eating patterns as they naturally occur in an athlete’s daily life. In other words, athletes not only follow cultural eating habits that include breakfast, lunch and dinnner, as an example, but their exercising frequency and volume demand additional meals in order to support their training.
As studies have shown, athletes involved in vigorous exercise do have a much greater need for quick glycogen repletion following training sessions, thus nutrient timing becomes of greater importance here.
Keep in mind, we’re talking about a very small percentage of individuals, those who must replenish their liver and muscle glycogen stores within 8-10 hours for multiple long-duration endurance training bouts, or strength-training athletes carrying out twice-a-day sessions for the same muscle groups.
An intake of protein with high-glycemic carbohydrates has been shown to spike insulin levels, which assists in the uptake of glucose into cells for greater glycogen resynthesis.
As a rule of thumb, 25 to 40 grams of carbohydrates with about 15 grams of protein either during or immediately following training will suffice. During training, drinks consisting of 4 to 6% glucose, such as Gatorade, can also help with performance and maintenance of adequate blood sugar levels.
For the rest of us folks, peri-workout nutrition, which includes your pre-, intra- and post-workout meals, doesn’t have to be so complicated. We’ll discuss what it entails below.
Peri-Workout Nutrition for Strength-Training
Resistance training has been shown to have great catabolic and anabolic effects on muscle protein. That means, your rate of muscle synthesis goes up, but it is matched with an increased rate of protein breakdown.
Peri-workout nutrition should then focus on maximizing protein synthesis while minimizing the negative catabolic effects on myofibrillar protein.
To that end, a mix of carbohydrates and protein following training can be of value, due to its higher insulin-spiking properties compared to the ingestion of either protein or carbohydrates alone.
Insulin not only assists with the uptake of glucose into cells (thus facilitating glycogen repletion) but it also has anti-catabolic effects, which have been shown to decrease protein breakdown following training.
With that said, if you’ve had a complete meal prior to training, your blood insulin levels will remain elevated for up to 6 hours depending on the size of the meal, so nutrient intake during and immediately following training might not be as crucial to recovery as you may think.
So, what does this all mean?
To put it simply, you will be fine without having your protein shake right after your last set, so long as you have had a protein-heavy meal within 4 or so hours prior to training.
Furthermore, unless you’re performing extremely high-volume sessions of 2 hours or longer, the use of carbohydrate supplements during resistance training likely offers no real benefit to glycogen repletion, as we consume an average of 60g of glycogen as fuel during a regular training session (which is a small value compared to what our glycogen storages can hold).
When we eat, the body takes a few hours to fully digest and absorb all the nutrients, which explains why you will have substrates such as glucose and amino acids travelling through your bloodstream for a few hours following the intake of a meal.
After training, the presence of these substrates contributes to recovery by assisting in muscle protein synthesis and glycogen repletion.
However, if you’re training fasted, the ingestion of post-workout nutrients may be of greater value. In that case, it might be a good idea to have a healthy dose of protein (anywhere from 20-30 grams) following training, together with high-glycemic carbs.
In any case, nutrient timing likely contributes a very small fraction towards fat loss and hypertrophy. Covering the basics of nutrition first, such as overall caloric intake and macronutrient partitioning, paired with consistency over the long term, is paramount to realizing body composition and strength goals, and should be accounted for prior to considering any non-essential nutritional variables such as meal frequency and nutrient timing.
- Munsters, M. J., & Saris, W. H. (2012). Effects of Meal Frequency on Metabolic Profiles and Substrate Partitioning in Lean Healthy Males. PLoS ONE, 7(6).
- Aragon, A., & Schoenfeld, B. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 65-89.
- Deutz, R. C., Benardot, D., Martin, D. E., & Cody, M. M. (1998). Relationship Between Energy Deficits And Body Composition In Elite Female Gymnasts And Runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 30(Supplement), 339.
- Iwao, S., Mori, K., & Sato, Y. (2008). Effects of meal frequency on body composition during weight control in boxers. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 6(5), 265-272.
- Bounty, P. M., Campbell, B. I., Wilson, J., Galvan, E., Berardi, J., Kleiner, S. M., . . . Antonio, J. (2011). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: meal frequency. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 8(1), 4.
- Zawadzki, K. M., Yaspelkis, B. B., & Ivy, J. L. (1992). Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 72(5), 1854-1859.
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Barbara works with females of all fitness levels, both online and in person at Apex Training Centre.
Her primary focus is to help clients increase general strength and improve body composition through training and nutrition coaching that is individualized, effective and adequate to each person.
With 5 years of coaching experience, her passion for strength training has helped her develop a writing voice that she uses to communicate scientific training knowledge to the average lifter and fitness enthusiast.
Click here to find out how Barbara can help you achieve your fitness goals.
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