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3 meals Vs 6 meals… which is best?

The fitness industry is a raging torrent of arguments, where supposedly knowledgeable ‘professionals’ claim to know all the answers that will solve your fitness or fat-loss related problems. One such argument is the meal frequency debate. Is it better to have three meals or six meals per day? Here’s what I think.

Firstly, if you consume an isocaloric diet (same number of calories) per day, whether you have three or six meals, shows no benefit to fat loss. The key is isocaloric. Fat loss comes from weeks of consistent calorie control. The diurnal variation of meal timings has no relevance over a prolonged period. Therefore, with this information in mind, the answer will come from weighing up a few individual variables.

Fat loss

If you fall into the ‘normal’ category of person, in that, your daily calorie intake is between 1500 to 2500, there is no reason why this cannot be divided into three 500-800 kcal meals. You could be perfectly satiated and have good fat loss results. The problems I find with having just three three meals, are that, many people are not good at eating enough at the right time or too much when they don’t need it. Most people under-eat at breakfast and lunch, then have too much dinner. Because of this, they snack in between meals and therefore your overall energy intake is too high. By increasing your eating frequency to five or six meals, it will reduce the amount of calories per meal to around 300-500. This allows for lifestyle time constraints so you can eat a smaller amounts while on the go. This can inherently reduce extra snacking and controls calorie intake. On the flip-side, three larger meals can make you feel fuller and are you may be less likely to snack on extra food. So, when it comes to meal frequency for fat loss, neither has any physiological benefits, more lifestyle and personal choices. The most important thing is that you eat the correct amount of food daily and use whichever system that helps you do this the best.

Performance or mass

For those of us that eat for mass gain or for athletic performance, I think the answer is more clear. The first consideration is protein. Your daily protein intake has a direct correlation to your muscle protein synthesis (MPS). When you eat protein, your muscle protein synthesis ‘switch’ is turned on. Depending on age, the amount needed to do this optimally is 20-40g of protein. Once MPS is switched on it cannot be switched on more, therefore eating a larger dose does not increase your MPS. MPS will stay on for a few hours then will turn off. Therefore, if you had only three meals that have to contain your daily protein intake i.e. 180g per day, you’d need three lots of 60g servings. this would only allow three points in your day where you’re making new muscle tissue. If your MPS is switched on by only 30g you’re essentially wasting 30g as it cannot be stored for later. If you were to eat six meals of 30g you’d have MPS occurring six times per day with no protein being wasted. Therefore, it is optimal for muscle building to pulse smaller servings of protein more frequently than larger servings less frequently. The next consideration is your total daily intake. If you’re eating 3000-5000 kcals per day over three meals, it equates to 1000-1333 kcals per meal. If you were to consume this from clean food sources you’d find it extremely tough to eat it all in one sitting, and, you may feel overly full or bloated after, which may impact training. Six 500-800 kcal meals are easier to consume in one sitting, and it becomes easier to eat your  total daily intake. Lastly, many performance athletes like to have certain macronutrients at certain times, and like to control insulin and cortisol levels. Smaller carbohydrate meals have a lesser insulinogenic reaction which makes it easier to prevent unwanted fat gain,  when eating a large number of calories. Although every individual can chose to do what they feel is best for them, I believe, for muscle mass gains and training performance, five to eight meals is optimal. The only downsides to this method is that; with the smaller meals sometimes you never quite feel full up, which can be a problem,for some people, and, it does impose restrictions when it comes to a social life, as you are often bringing your own meals with you and are less ‘flexible’ to conformist society.

To sum up

The amount of calories daily is the most overriding factor in all of this and meal frequency is as individual as the person reading this. For fat loss, there is no better or worse way if you’re eating between three and six meals, the best diet is the one that you can stick to the longest. For a performance basis, more meals can improve muscle growth rates and can make it easier to eat a larger total daily calorie intake.

Keep on liftin’ Ali ‘Fat Al’ Stewart

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