Bros vs Pros - Do you really need to eat 6 times a day?

Jager Bombs! Muscle Milk! HGH!

“Broscience - The predominant brand of reasoning in bodybuilding circles where the anecdotal reports of jacked dudes are considered more credible than scientific research.”

-UrbanDictionary.com

It’s almost inevitable. You decide to start working out. You join a gym. You pump some iron. You eat 5-6 meals a day. But, is there any truth to this familiar trope? Is there solid science to back up the claims of boosted metabolisms and nitrogen positive muscles? Most importantly, do you really need to go all squirrel-mode and constantly pack your bag with snacks to get ripped, healthy, or huge?

As a teenager looking to become the next Mr. Olympia, I got my first taste of the multiple meal myth. Each month I hungrily ate up whatever information was revealed in the sacred books (i.e. FLEX and Muscle & Fitness). I was especially enamored by stories of bodybuilders who, among other things, set timers to wake themselves up in the middle of the night for so that they never sacrificed a single muscle cell to catabolism.

The addiction deepened during my college years. As a freshly minted Exercise Science grad I worked in a large fitness center and was surrounded by a team of like-minded trainers. Everyone packed coolers full of powders, packets of goo, proteins, and protein bars. Between appointments we'd sneak off for a quick nosh, sometimes stashing bars in our pockets in the case of back to back sessions.

Unfortunately for my now wife and family, this type of activity wasn't limited to the gym. Woe betide the person who went on a road trip, airline flight, or walk in the park with me. While normal people consider the question, "What clothes should I bring?" I was obsessed with, "What will I eat?" and packed accordingly.  Lugging a cooler filled to the brim and topped off with ice packs was a regular occurrence.

My faith in mandatory multiple meals was first tested during my Primal Bulking Experiment. On this relatively low-carb regiment, I found a funny thing happening. I was no longer ravenous two hours after eating.  From a scientific perspective this made sense.  My body was able to oxidize fat more effectively after restricting carbohydrate intake, and my hunger was mediated by a steady release of free fatty acids.  The implications of this notion inevitably extended into questions about the necessity of eating anything at all.  If I was walking around with many thousands of calories worth of bodyfat, why should I be shackled to my lunchbox?  Why should I be a slave to snacking?

I think this is a good time to mention that I am in no way advocating that you intentionally starve yourself.  That is called anorexia and it is a serious eating disorder that often leads to disease and death.  Rather, I am questioning the notion that you have to eat constantly in order to be fit and athletic.  Assuming that you are providing your body with adequate calories and nutrients on a daily basis, why should it be damaging to "only" eat three, two, or even one meal a day?  There are even athletes like football legend Herschel Walker and WMMA superstar Ronda Rousey who perform at elite levels (and sport famously physiques) while eating only once a day.

Inspired by the work of Intermittent Fasting (IF) expert Martin Berkhan, I decided to set the record straight by comparing what is said by the "Pro Science" (work done by  researchers) versus what is said by the "Bro Science" (advice from jacked dudes).

Good to look at I may be, but analogous to your metabolism I am not. 

Exhibit 1) Metabolism

What the Broscience says:

“Eating 6 times a day boosts your metabolism.”

What the Science says:

Even though the example of the "metabolic fire" beings stoked by "little sticks" rather than "logs" may make intuitive sense, multiple studies have shown people are not campfires and that there is no “metabolic boost” from eating 6 times a day vs 3. [1] There isn’t even a difference between eating 3 times a day vs 2! [2] This rumor likely started with a grain of truth. When you eat, your metabolism does in fact rev up, but how much it revs up depends on how much you ate. As long as your total calories remain the same, there is no difference because you are either experiencing 6 little boosts or 3 big boosts. In fact, there are even studies that show metabolism increases after short-term fasting! [3]

Sumo's may skip breakfast, but they make it up by consuming upwards of 20,000 calories per day.
Exhibit 2) Appetite

What the Broscience says:

“Eating 6 times a day controls your appetite by avoiding 'starvation mode'.”

What the Science says:

In a study of overweight and obese men, researchers found that hunger increased when participants ate 6 times a day versus just 3. On a side note, they found that independent of meal frequency, high protein diets do promote a sense of fullness and satiety. [4] A possible mechanism for this effect was uncovered in another study with normal weight men. In this experiment, researchers found that ghrelin, a hormone that makes us feel hungry, is lowered when insulin levels rise. Smaller, more frequent meals therefore inadequately stimulate insulin and so the ghrelin levels never drop and you stay hungry. [5]


Exhibit 3) Anabolism

What the Broscience says:

“Eating 6 times a day ensures that your muscles always have protein available.”

What the Science says:

Studies on protein absorption rates derived from subjects being fed liquid protein without any other nutrients have little real world applicability, but this is likely where this meme came from.  While it is true that a meal of liquid protein, such as whey, is rapidly digested, when you eat a mixed meal, for example a salad, steak, and sweet potato, you’re going to be digesting that meal, and getting a steady stream of nutrients sent to your muscles for over 5 hours! [6]

Bodybuilding Pioneer Vince Gironda ate 3 low-carb Paleo meals per day

Conclusion

There are plenty of people out there who have great physiques and eat 6 times (or more) a day and the purpose of this article isn’t to refute their experience. The point is that you don’t have to eat 6 times a day to get great results. There is no one perfect workout and there is no one perfect diet. The goal is to find the one that is perfect for you.

However, it seems that there may be significant benefits to going without a meal or two every so often.  In addition to the points I made about metabolism, appetite, and anabolism, you can also add "autophagy."  This process, where the body "cleans out" old cells, is thought to contribute to longevity and is powerfully stimulated by short-term fasting. [7]

It is also worth mentioning that it may initially feel "impossible" to change your meal frequency and timing due to overwhelming "hunger".  Since it is pretty obvious that you won't actually die from missing a meal, why does it feel that way?  Well, there is evidence that suggests that we become "entrained" (conditioned) to expect food at a certain time. [8]  Like Pavlov's dogs, if we always eat a midnight snack, you can bet that right around midnight we'll start becoming ravenous.  This doesn't mean that you actually have to eat, however, and after a few days on a new schedule, your body will get used to the new pattern and you'll start feeling better as a result.

If you are interested in learning more about IF I strongly suggest you check out Martin Berkhan's site LeanGains.com.


Resources:

1) “Studies using whole-body calorimetry and doubly-labelled water to assess total 24 h energy expenditure find no difference between nibbling and gorging. Finally, with the exception of a single study, there is no evidence that weight loss on hypoenergetic regimens is altered by meal frequency.”

Bellisle F et. al. Meal frequency and energy balance. Br J Nutr. (1997) 77 (Suppl 1):S57-70

2) “Eating three meals compared with two meals had no effects on 24 h energy expenditure, diet-induced thermogenesis, activity-induced energy expenditure and sleeping metabolic rate.”

Smeets AJ et. al. Acute effects on metabolism and appetite profile of one meal difference in the lower range of meal frequency. Br J Nutr. 2008 Jun;99(6):1316-21. Epub 2007 Dec 6.

3) “The chronotropic, lipolytic, and thermogenic effects of infused epinephrine were therefore enhanced by prior starvation, despite the lower plasma epinephrine levels.”

Klein S et. al. Importance of blood glucose concentration in regulating lipolysis during fasting in humans. Am J Physiol. 1990 Jan;258(1 Pt 1):E32-9.

4) “The fullness-related responses were consistently greater with higher protein intake but lower with increased eating frequency. Collectively, these data suggest that higher protein intake promotes satiety and challenge the concept that increasing the number of eating occasions enhances satiety in overweight and obese men.”

Leidy HJ et. al. The influence of higher protein intake and greater eating frequency on appetite control in overweight and obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Sep;18(9):1725-32. Epub 2010 Mar 25

5) “This study provides further evidence that the postprandial fall in ghrelin might be due, at least partially, to the rise in insulin and that high-frequency feeding may disrupt this relationship.”

Solomon TP,The effect of feeding frequency on insulin and ghrelin responses in human subjects.Br J Nutr. 2008 Oct;100(4):810-9. Epub 2008 Apr 8.

6) “It is concluded that in human subjects, 1) the absorption of a natural mixed meal is still incomplete at 5 h after ingestion...”

Capaldo B et. al. Splanchnic and leg substrate exchange after ingestion of a natural mixed meal in humans. Diabetes. 1999 May;48(5):958-66.

7) “We show that short-term fasting leads to a dramatic upregulation in neuronal autophagy...Our data lead us to speculate that sporadic fasting might represent a simple, safe and inexpensive means to promote this potentially therapeutic neuronal response.”

Alirezaei M, et. al. Short-term fasting induces profound neuronal autophagy. Autophagy. 2010 Aug;6(6):702-10. Epub 2010 Aug 14.

8) “The principal finding was that the time from preprandial nadir to peak ghrelin concentration differed between LII and SII groups. This reflected the differences in customary eating schedules of the two groups because both peaks occurred prior to their respective habitual lunch times. This suggests an entrainment effect on ghrelin.”

Freka J, et. al. Possible entrainment of ghrelin to habitual meal patterns in humans. Am J of Phys. 7 January 2008.
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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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3 comments:

  1. Honestly, I don't think you have to eat that much. 3 meals a day combined with generous exercise and some creatine supplements should be enough to keep you fit as a horse.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you so much! I think I will stop bothering with trying to eat 6 times a day, since it really takes lot of time. Enormous respect to you for adding references to resources used in this article.

    Best Regards,
    Ritvars

    ReplyDelete
  3. You made some fine points there. I did a search on the subject and found a good number of persons will go along with your blog. training clothes

    ReplyDelete