One thing which I am regularly asked is whether nutrient timing really matters. Nutrient timing is the science of when to eat. That is – assuming all calories are equal and calories in versus calories out is the most important factor in changing body composition (which is a whole different debate in itself) – does it matter whether you spread your calories across, for example, three meals a day or six?
Nutrient timing also concerns the science of macronutrient timing, particularly pre- and post-workout, but for the sake of brevity I will discuss that in a different post.
The answer to the original question, like so many other nutrition-related questions, is it depends.
In support of frequent meals
Fitness magazines would have you believe that eating smaller, more frequent meals will speed up your metabolism and firmly cement your place on the gains train.
There is an overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence (AKA “broscience”) which supports this theory. Even if the scientific evidence isn’t always there, many people report a better aesthetic response by spreading their calories out over a greater number of meals.
Another argument in favour of more frequent meals is that, if you eat less frequently, you will become hypoglycaemic (low blood sugar). You will become starving and reach for less than optimal foods, such as simple carbohydrates, which will hinder your physique-related goals.
In addition, there are hormonal benefits of eating smaller meals more frequently. It is often argued that eating large meals less often will spike blood sugar and in turn spike insulin levels, which is more likely to lead to fat storage.
Finally, consider this quote from Tony Gentilcore, who is someone I usually agree with, which I will address below:
Never skip a meal to “save calories.” In doing so you’re more likely to overeat later in the day. One of the worst things you can do is to go for prolonged periods of time without eating. You should eat to prevent hunger, not because you’re hungry. Even if you’re not hungry and it’s been three hours, eat something. A protein shake with a handful of mixed nuts would suffice.
Strive for five to eight “feedings” per day. Doing so will go a long ways in keeping blood glucose levels in check and providing some arbitrary improvements in overall metabolism.
In support of fewer meals
Recent studies have proven there is no benefit whatsoever to consuming all of your calories in six or seven meals compared to two or three meals. Contrary to popular belief, eating every two hours does not “stoke the metabolic fire”.
Your body will not turn catabolic or enter starvation mode if it goes without food for a few hours, and it will not slow down its metabolic rate to conserve energy. In terms of how many calories the body takes to digest a meal (known as the thermic effect of food), there is absolutely no difference between whether you consume all your calories across several meals or just one.
For those who worry about hypoglycaemia, I encourage them to actually try eating fewer meals. Most people who fear eating only three meals a day picture doing so with their current meal structure; of course they will feel hungry if they eat a 300 or 400 calorie lunch and then try to wait six or seven hours until their next meal.
But, if they actually tried eating a 1,500 calorie lunch, they may be surprised to find that they indeed do not feel hungry again until well into the evening.
That said, I only recommend someone should eat fewer meals if they have a perfectly healthy metabolism and hormonal system. If one has experienced extensive periods of restriction and may be dealing with the consequences of metabolic damage, it is beneficial to eat more regularly.
This is because their digestive system will usually be in a compromised position where it is easier to process smaller meals, and they will likely also be dealing with some form of insulin resistance, meaning it is not able to release enough insulin in response to a large influx of carbohydrates.
On the other hand, if your insulin sensitivity is normal, I honestly do not think it matters how you spread out your calories. There is not enough evidence to support a negative insulin effect as a result of eating large meals in healthy individuals.
In regards to Tony’s quote, I think that’s an extremely messed up approach to nutrition. The article is eight years old, so I’m hoping his opinions have changed since then, but I think forcing yourself to eat when you are not hungry is one of the reasons Americans in particular have such a messed up relationship to food.
My personal approach
Personally, I only eat two or three times per day at a maximum. I much prefer eating this way as I like to have big meals of around 1,000 calories or more, yet it was only once I was confident that my metabolism had healed itself that I allowed myself to eat this way.
The thought of going back to six or seven tiny “bro” meals a day makes me want to weep, and I tend to find myself more hungry when eating this way. I never feel satisfied and it makes me obsess over food, as I am constantly thinking about my next meal. Nowadays, I can eat and leave the house for the whole day, without having to stress about packing tupperware or snacks.
My advice for muscle gain
From dealing with my own clients, I have found that, from a muscle gaining perspective, results are far greater when one eats more meals more often. When you are eating in a caloric surplus, it is often easier to stomach huge amounts of food across more meals – trying to eat 5,000 calories in one sitting is not enjoyable for most people.
My advice for fat loss
From a fat loss point of view, most people succeed best with around four meals per day. It’s much easier to spread, say, 1,600 calories per day across four meals instead of six. The meals will be large enough to satiate, yet frequent enough to prevent serious hunger and subsequent overeating.
I am generally opposed to fasting in women, due to the hormonal response it evokes, but men can often see good fat loss results when fasting. However, I do not recommend fasting for any man who is looking to add muscle mass.
Generally speaking, the more advanced someone is and the more specific their goals are, the more important nutrient timing becomes. An average middle-aged man who has never regularly exercised or eaten healthily in his life does not need to worry about timing his macronutrients perfectly between six bodybuilder-style meals, but should instead focus on eating healthy foods wherever possible.
One final factor to consider – which, arguably, may be the most important – is what approach best suits your lifestyle. When I was working in finance, I couldn’t exactly walk out of meetings and duck out of conference calls to eat tuna and broccoli every three hours. Now that I work from home, I could easily follow that schedule but I choose not to.
Consider your career, home environment, and personal dietary preferences when deciding how many meals to eat per day, and do not feel pressured into following the advice of a guru.
At the end of the day, it’s up to you to experiment and find an approach that is sustainable within your lifestyle.
How many meals do you eat per day?