For years, we’ve been told that eating every 2-3 hours is the best way to build muscle and gain weight.
However, there are claims that eating too frequently could actually impair gains in muscle mass.
The idea is that eating too often has the potential to slow muscle growth by “desensitizing” muscle tissue to further stimulation by amino acids, increasing the rate at which protein is oxidized .
Spacing meals apart and allowing amino acid levels in the blood to drop, rather than maintaining them at continuously stable levels, appears to have the greatest impact on protein synthesis.
Or to put it another way, leaving longer between meals may help “re-sensitize” muscle to the anabolic effect of amino acids.
However, I should point out that much of the research out there looks at short-term changes in muscle protein synthesis rather than actual changes in muscle mass. And while the two are linked to some degree, short-term changes in protein synthesis don’t always add up to long-term gains in muscle mass.
In one of the few studies to look at the impact of meal frequency on muscle growth, researchers assigned a group of men and women with at least one year of strength-training experience to either a six-meal or a three-meal a day group.
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They trained four days per week for 12 weeks using the same strength-training program, giving each muscle group one heavy session and one light session per week.
Contrary to what you might expect, the three-meal group actually gained more muscle than the six-meal group.
But when I looked at the research in detail, the results weren’t as exciting as they first appeared.
The first problem is that the study was presented at a conference (12th Annual Congress of the European College of Sport Science in Jyväskylä, Finland) and not published in a journal. Important information about how the study was done is not normally included in conference proceedings, and sometimes the way a study is set up can render the results totally irrelevant.
The second problem is that calorie intake was self reported, which means that the subjects simply wrote down what they ate each day. The researchers then used these food diaries to estimate the calorie intake of each subject.
However, self-reporting is a notoriously inaccurate way to estimate calorie intake, and there’s often a big difference between what people say they eat and what they actually eat.
As well as gaining more muscle, the three-meal group gained more fat than the six-meal group. This raises the possibility that the three-meal group simply ate more calories overall, which is obviously going to have a big impact on the results.
Some people have taken things to the other extreme, claiming that one huge meal per day is the best way to eat.
Much of their reasoning is based on the “hunter-gatherers did it so we should all do it” hypothesis. Which ignores the rather obvious fact that hunter-gatherers were not in the slightest bit concerned with improving their body composition.
They simply wanted to survive.
There is a big difference between how we might have eaten 10,000 years ago and what is optimal for losing fat and building muscle. Humans have evolved not to subsist on a single diet but to be flexible eaters. Hunter-gatherers simply took advantage of any dependable sources of energy in their environment.
This doesn’t mean there is a single hunter-gatherer diet (of the many out there) that represents the “right” way of eating. Rather, it illustrates how well humans cope with an incredibly diverse range of eating strategies.
So how many meals a day should you eat if you want to gain muscle?
The answer to that question hinges on how many calories you’re taking in each day. I know guys in their early 20’s that need upwards of 5,000 calories per day in order to gain weight.
Trying to pack all those calories into just three meals will mean that each meal contains over 1500 calories. Chances are you’re going to find it very difficult to eat three such large meals on a daily basis without feeling bloated and sick.
Split those same 5,000 calories into six smaller meals, and you’re left with around 800 calories per meal, which is a lot more manageable. For those with a high calorie intake, eating 5-6 meals per day can be the right thing to do.
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