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Can You Build Muscle with Three Meals a Day?

by Repfuel Sports 07 Jun 2023 0 Comments


When it comes to building muscle and achieving your fitness goals, there's no shortage of advice and theories out there. One popular notion is that eating small, frequent meals throughout the day can turbocharge your metabolism, keep hunger at bay, and help you sculpt the body of your dreams. But does the science support this idea? Let's dive into the research and separate fact from fiction.

Metabolism: Does Meal Frequency Stoke the Furnace?

Proponents of frequent meal consumption often argue that it can "stoke the metabolic furnace." This claim is rooted in the set point theory, which suggests that our bodies strive to maintain enough energy (in the form of body fat) to survive potential food shortages. According to this theory, when we go without food for extended periods, our bodies interpret it as a form of deprivation and shift into "starvation mode." This response includes reducing resting energy expenditure and slowing down our metabolic rate to conserve energy.

On the surface, this theory seems logical, but the actual evidence supporting it is scant. Some early studies, like one involving dogs, suggested that feeding more frequent, smaller meals could boost thermogenesis, the process by which our bodies produce heat (1). A subsequent study with humans showed increased thermogenesis with more frequent feedings (2).

However, many other studies have failed to demonstrate any significant effect of meal frequency on energy expenditure (3-7). So, despite some initial positive findings, the overall body of evidence doesn't convincingly support the idea that eating more frequently revs up your metabolism.

One common argument for the supposed metabolic benefits of frequent meals involves the thermic effect of food (TEF). TEF is the energy our bodies expend as heat during the digestion of food. Different macronutrients have varying TEF levels, with protein having the highest energy expenditure and fat the least. On average, TEF is only accountable for 10% of the calories consumed in a meal.

Let's break it down with an example: Imagine you're on a 2400-calorie-a-day diet. If you eat three 800-calorie meals, each meal's TEF would be around 80 calories. Multiply that by three meals, and you get a total TEF of 240 calories. Now, if you spread those same 2400 calories over six meals, each meal's TEF would be around 40 calories, resulting in the same total TEF of 240 calories. In other words, assuming the macronutrient content and total calories remain consistent, there's no difference in thermogenesis between three and six meals a day.

caloric and protein requirements

Appetite and Hunger: Can Frequent Meals Curb Cravings?

Another argument for frequent meal consumption is that it helps control appetite and hunger, a crucial factor in weight management. The idea is that prolonged periods without eating lead to drops in blood sugar, triggering the body's hunger signals, especially for simple carbohydrates. This often results in overeating, particularly sugary, refined foods, which can eventually lead to unwanted weight gain.

Again, the research doesn't wholeheartedly support this claim. While some studies have reported reduced hunger when meals are spaced throughout the day (8-11), others have found no significant differences in appetite and hunger indices, regardless of meal frequency (12, 13). 

Intriguingly, some studies have even suggested that eating three meals rather than six can increase feelings of fullness (6, 14). The effects of meal frequency on hunger-related hormones are also inconclusive (13, 15).

So, the belief that spreading out nutrient intake is inherently more satisfying is, at best, debatable and likely influenced by individual factors.

Insulin Levels: The "Insulin-Friendly" Myth

Another often-cited benefit of frequent meals is their supposed "insulin-friendly" effect. According to this hypothesis, consuming a few large meals leads to blood sugar spikes, resulting in surges in insulin levels. Insulin, known as a storage hormone, is then believed to trigger mechanisms that promote fat storage.

While some studies have indeed shown that more frequent meals can lead to more stable glucose levels and lower average insulin concentrations (16-20), the crucial question is whether these findings have any meaningful impact on fat loss. As it turns out, from a fat loss perspective, the answer appears to be not really.

One study found that while frequent meals resulted in lower glucose and insulin spikes compared to fewer feedings, no difference was observed in fat oxidation between the two groups. In simple terms, both eating patterns resulted in burning the same amount of fat (21). Importantly, this study was meticulously controlled, with the same subjects consuming both diets and the same types and amounts of food. Additionally, the subjects were lean, healthy adults, making the results more relevant to regular exercisers.

In essence, those who focus on insulin's effects on fat loss in a healthy population might be looking in the wrong direction. The actual adversary here is excess calories, not insulin.

If you choose to build muscle with three meals a day, it becomes essential to optimize nutrient timing within those meals. Consuming protein through lean meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, tofu etc., is usually recommended. Additionally, incorporating carbohydrates and healthy fats in your meals ensures a well-rounded nutritional approach.

supplement recommendation

Body Composition: The Muscle-Building Puzzle

While acute studies can offer insights into the potential implications of meal frequency, the ultimate question is whether eating more frequently improves body composition. This is where things get a bit complicated.

One frequently cited study involved competitive boxers placed on a 1200-calorie diet for two weeks. One group consumed their daily calories as two meals, while the other group spread them out over six meals a day. At the end of the study, the frequent feeding group retained more lean body mass compared to the two-meal-a-day group, even though both groups had similar total weight loss. However, it's essential to note that the study's duration was very short, making it unclear whether these results would hold up over the long term. Furthermore, the daily protein intake was only 60 grams, which falls far below the requirements of a dedicated athlete and makes drawing definitive conclusions challenging (22).

A more recent study by Arciero et al. supports higher daily meal frequency. In this complex study, two groups consumed a high-protein diet (35% of total calories) through either three or six meals a day for approximately two months. Both groups experienced similar fat loss (2.5 kilograms for three meals versus 2.7 kilograms for six meals). However, the frequent meal group gained lean body mass (0.6 kilograms) compared to a loss of lean body mass in the three-meal group (-0.9 kilograms), equating to about 3 pounds of lean body mass gained (23).

However, these results should be interpreted with caution. The subjects were overweight women who did not engage in any structured exercise or resistance training program, making it unclear whether similar outcomes would apply to weightlifters. Moreover, it's intriguing that meal frequency had such a significant impact on lean mass increases, given that the anabolic effects of protein consumption typically last up to six hours (24). This raises questions about the validity of the body composition measurements in this particular study.

In contrast to the studies mentioned above, several others have found no notable body composition benefits associated with consuming more frequent meals (13, 25). In fact, a well-controlled randomized crossover trial discovered that normal-weight middle-aged adults lost more body fat following a one-meal-a-day regimen as compared to eating the same number of calories spread over three daily meals (8).


Key Takeaways

So, what can we conclude from the research on meal frequency?

  • The claims that frequent meals significantly boost your metabolism are overstated, and research on this topic yields inconsistent results.
  • While there's some evidence that eating multiple small meals can enhance protein synthesis, this effect is primarily observed when protein intake is very low (below recommended levels). It's uncertain whether these findings hold when consuming the recommended protein intake for active individuals (over 1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight).
  • If you're a bodybuilder aiming for top-notch body composition, even minor improvements can be crucial. So, if your goal is to minimize body fat while preserving muscle, it's advisable to experiment with different meal frequencies to find what works best for you. Individual variation significantly influences optimal results.

In the end, the key is to select a meal frequency that aligns with your lifestyle and supports your goals. There's no one-size-fits-all solution in fitness. Whether you prefer frequent small meals or a few larger ones, choose a meal frequency that suits you and stay consistent with your approach. Keep in mind that erratic eating patterns may negatively impact metabolic function. Fitness is a marathon, not a sprint, so focus on consistency and adaptability to achieve your desired results.

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