Meal Frequency Article

Posted: October 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

Meal Frequency

Show me a gym and I’ll show you real hunger. No, this isn’t a reference to whaling stomachs or starved abdominals… I’m talking about drive – motivation to move forward, to do well, to achieve, to be better. As commendable as such a lifestyle is, it can often lead those individuals to look before the leap if they catch sight of something that they think will benefit them on their journey to becoming part of the elite.
For years, you’ve heard countless times about the benefits of increasing your meal frequency – 6-8 small meals a day in order to keep yourself lean, to keep yourself energized, to keep yourself pushing forward. What if I were to tell you that for all of those years of stringent dietary discipline, you may as well have relaxed and enjoyed a feast whenever you liked? What if tearing yourself away from an already busy schedule to choke down a small meal wasn’t for the good of your health, but may have actually been detrimental to your health in the long term? Let’s have a look at the evidence.

The Evidence

Meal frequency first became a key discussion point in weight loss after the research of Fabry and associates in the mid 1960’s, who observed a significant relationship between meal-frequency and body weight – fat people appeared to be gorging a few times a day while team-lean ate just as much, except across more meals. Initial research observed this relationship in school children (1), men in their early 60s (2) and men aged 30-50 (3). The research continued to flood in, finding the same relationship in both women and men from as young as 25 to 89 year olds and again in adolescents (4, 5, 6). With such a significant wealth of studies supporting the idea that the standard 3-a-day meal ratio was killing us slowly, it’s no surprise that every individual involved in the fitness/health industry was recommending everyone consume 6-8 small meals a day.

What may surprise you is that the first suggestion we were all over-reacting to the previous meal frequency studies came in 1996 – that’s 16 years ago for those of you who wanted an unpleasant surprise. Summerbell et al (7) investigated the then current data regarding meal frequency and body weight as well as conducting an analysis of weight-diet records from over 200 individuals across a similar age group. They discovered that the previous findings regarding meal frequency and body weight disappeared when they removed individuals who had under-reported how much they had eaten (a major bio-psychological phenomenon (8)) from the analysis. The same was true of adolescents when dieting males and weight-conscious females were excluded. Adding to these findings were studies investigating the effects of meal frequency on weight loss in people who were deliberately trying to lose weight (calorie restriction) which showed overwhelmingly that meal-frequency appeared to make no difference to weight loss outcomes, with only one research group finding any evidence to suggest otherwise (9). In short, we may have been panicking over faulty research.

Having debunked the myth that increasing meal frequency will help you add lean body mass, a more recent study involving overweight/obese men suggests that increasing frequency may actually make it harder to lose weight by making you more hungry (10). Further research into the subject by Holmstrup et al (11) (2010) revealed that high meal frequency may actually be harmful. They discovered that in individuals consuming the same amount of carbohydrate, protein and fat (65/15/20) across either 3 or 6 meals, the participants who ate more often maintained 30% higher blood glucose levels than those who ate only 3 times that day. Furthermore, there was no difference in insulin activity between the groups. This suggests that insulin was less efficient at reducing blood sugars when more frequent meals were consumed – a potential prelude to both insulin resistance and glucose intolerance, which can both lead to Type 2 Diabetes (14, 15). This is particularly concerning considering the gym/nutritional rules that new (potentially overweight and metabolically resistant) gym-goers are often suggested to follow.

Protein consumption frequency

With regards to muscular hypertrophy and recovery, the idea behind any diet is to maintain a positive net protein balance (maintaining protein synthesis for as long as possible). Recent research (12) suggests that in order to maximize protein synthesis it is beneficial to consume your daily recommendation of protein (>1.6g per kg bodyweight if pursuing strength/size gains (13)) over 4-6 sittings, whilst waiting 4-5 hours between meals.


The key to any lifestyle change is making sure you approach it in a way that works for you personally. This is especially true of diet as some approaches are time consuming, provide poor results and cause people to very quickly give up on their intentions of becoming leaner and looking and feeling better. Given the evidence we’ve just discussed, your diet need not be a consistently time consuming component of your regime. As such, what is important is ensuring that no matter how often you choose to eat, you are consuming the calories, protein, vitamins and minerals that you need on a daily basis to achieve your goals.


For any individual in training, peri-workout nutrition (what you eat before, during and after exercise) is of the utmost importance, with particular attention to carbohydrate consumption – maximizing available carbohydrates at all times. The literature recommendations here suggest carbohydrate consumption before (1-4 hours), regularly throughout the exercise period and as soon as possible when you have completed your workout (16). Protein at this point is not by any means essential but if it helps you fit your protein requirements into your day and you have no issues with nausea – go for it!

Lastly, regardless of how you eat, it can be helpful to plan meals well ahead of time and prepare appropriately. If time is a significant issue for you, it can be helpful to either supplement your diet as much as necessary or cook and store food in bulk. This may seem like a lot of effort, but quite often the last thing on your mind is pacing around a hot kitchen after a serious workout.



As it stands, current literature points us towards the standard 3 meals a day as being the most healthy and efficient way to eat. Previous research hailing increased meal frequency is being continually overruled by more modern research, which suggests that not only does the often recommended 6-8 meals a day not help in building lean muscle mass, but that it may slow down weight-loss and actually harm health in the long term by careering subjects towards ailments such as Type 2 Diabetes.


With regards to frequency of protein consumption, consuming your required daily protein over 5-6 sittings with 4-5 hours between feeds appears to be optimal for increasing muscle mass.

Throwing frequency aside, the rules of dieting to increase muscle mass are simple – consume a calorie surplus, ensure you’re getting your required protein intake, don’t slouch on the vitamins and minerals and stay hydrated.

Eat, sleep, grow.




  1. Fabry et al (1966). Effect of meal frequency in

schoolchildren: changes in weight-height proportion and skinfold thickness. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 18, 358-361.
 Fabry et al (1964). The frequency of meals: its relation to

  1. overweight, hypercholesterolaemia, and decreased glucose tolerance. Lancet ii, 614-615.
  2. Fabry and Hejda (1966). Effect of meal frequency in

schoolchildren: changes in weight-height proportion and skinfold thickness. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 18, 358-361.

  1. Kant, A. K. (1995). Frequency of eating occasions and weight change in NHANES I Epidemiologic Follow-up Study. International Journal of Obesity 19, 468474
  2. Metzner, H. L., Lamphiear, D. E., Wheeler, N. C. & Larkin, F. A. (1977). The relationship between frequency of eating and adiposity in adult men and women in the Tecumseh Community Health Study. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 30, 712-715.
  3. Charzewska et al (1981). Relationship between obesity or

overweight development and the frequency of meals, their distribution during the day and consumption of atherogenic food products. Zywienie Czlowieka 8, 217-227

  1. Summerbell et al (1996). Relationship between feeding pattern and body mass index in 220 free-living people in four age groups. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 50, 513-519
  2.  Prentice, A. M., Black, A. E., Coward, W. A., Davies, H. L., Goldberg, G. R., Murgatroyd, P. R., Ashford, J., Sawyer, M. & Whitehead, R. G. (1986). High levels of energy expenditure in obese women. British Medical Journal 292,983-987.
  3. Bellisle et al (1997). Meal frequency and energy balance. British Journal of Nutrition (1997), 77 (Suppl. I), S57-S70#

10. Leidy et al (2010). The influence of higher protein intake and greater eating frequency on appetite control in overweight and obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). Sep;18(9):1725-32

11. Holmstrup et al (2010). Effect of meal frequency on glucose and insulin excursions over the course of a day. Eu eJ of Clin Nutr and Metab. Volume 5, Issue 6 , Pages e277-e280

12. Layne Norton (2009). Protein: how much and how often?

13. Strength and Conditioning. Biological principles and practical applications. Sec 4.3.3, pg 378. (2011)

14. Fonseca VA (2007). Identification and treatment of prediabetes to prevent progression to type 2 diabetes. Clin Cornerstone. 2007;8(2):10-8; discussion 19-20.

15. Gerald M. Reaven (1993). Role of Insulin Resistance in Human Disease (Syndrome X): An Expanded Definition. Annual Review of MedicineVol. 44: 121-131

16. Hawley and Burke (1997). Effect of meal frequency and timing on physical performance. British Journal of Nutrition (1997), 77 : pp S91-S103


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