Do I Need To Eat Every 2-3 Hours For Fat Loss And Muscle Gain?
Points You’ll Takeaway –
1. Eating every 2-3 hours can be inconvenient for many and makes life hard, having to constantly think ahead. It can even cause stress when you cannot eat every 2-3 hours.
2. Looking to consume approximately 30g of protein in a meal will sufficiently stimulate MPS and provide 2-3g of leucine.
3. It MAY be more useful to consume your meals every 4-5 hours to maximise MPS.
4. However, meal frequency is a grey area and more research is needed.
Concentrate first on consuming adequate calories and the correct macronutrient targets first!
You really don’t need to be constantly eating in order to lose weight or build muscle. Studies have shown that eating frequent meals have no effect on fat burning or speeding up your metabolism, when looking to lose fat. (1)
Eating every 2-3 hours can be inconvenient for many and makes life hard, having to constantly think ahead. It can even cause stress when you cannot eat every 2-3 hours if this is what you have been told to do. For the majority of us just eat when you’re hungry and when best suits you. Consuming adequate calories and the correct macronutrients, tailored towards your goal is far more important than nutrient/meal timing.
But what about if I want to build muscle, do I not need to eat protein every 2-3 hours?
Now there is the issue of meal frequency and time between meals when looking to ‘optimize’ muscle growth. Optimize is in quotations as the word optimize is always a grey area and how do you ever know what is optimal? What is optimal today, may not be optimal tomorrow. Certain protocols can be based on theories, and of course everyone is different so it is truly hard to know exactly what is optimal for someone.
To build muscle we need to make sure muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is greater than muscle protein breakdown. MPS has been shown to be stimulated by the amino leucine and protein. Lecuine stimulates the ‘mammalian target of rapamycin’ (mTOR) pathway which in turn increases MPS. So to be maximizing MPS we should look to be achieving the required leucine/protein threshold.
It has been shown that 2-3g of leucine is required to do this. (2) Therefore one could then determine how much chicken must be eaten in order to reach the leucine threshold, but if you are hitting your protein requirements for the day (0.8-1.5g/lb of bodyweight) you should be hitting adequate levels of leucine, without worrying or working out leucine for every meal you eat.
So no need to stress out about that!
Recent New Recent Research Alert!
A new meta analysis, that analyses as much of the literature as possible in humans, study week of over 2 weeks long, in English and measured measure body composition, showed that meal frequency in ‘optimizing’ body composition (body composition is the body’s relative amount of fat to fat-free mass) is still unknown and further research is needed. The increase in number of meals to increase fat loss and increase fat free mass has had mixed results.
‘The primary novel and important findings of the analysis are that increased feeding frequency appeared to be positively associated with reductions in fat mass and body fat percentage as well as an increase in FFM. However, sensitivity analysis of the data showed that the positive findings were largely the product of a SINGLE study, casting doubt as to whether more frequent meals confer beneficial effects on body composition.’ (3)
So 1 study was heavily influencing the results.
A limitation of this review was the majority of these studies were on people who were not training and consuming low levels of protein.
So as with anything in nutrition, it is not black or white.
So in my opinion for the nonprofessional athlete meal frequency and size, as part of a calorie controlled diet, is down to your lifestyle and preferences.
So on the other hand, should I be hitting the leucine and protein threshold as much as possible?
Looking to consume approximately 30g of protein in a meal will sufficiently stimulate MPS and provide 2-3g of leucine. A meal made up of protein, carbs and fats, increases MPS approximately for 3 hours before dropping back down. (4)
This occurs even when blood plasma amino acid levels are still elevated at the 3 hour mark. Bohe et al showed that MPS was stimulated for only 2 hours even when essential amino acids were infused directly into the blood for 6 hours. (5) This suggests that MPS is increased via amino acids concentrations (high/low) in the blood, rather than absolutes figures.
This is a plausible reason to show constantly eating protein and leucine, wishing to stimulate MPS as much as possible, is probably pointless.
This phenomenon is known as a ‘refractory period or muscle fullness’ (5) in which MPS shows a resistance to continue even when protein/leucine threshold is sufficient in the blood. This suggests that changes in levels of amino acids from low to high, results in a subsequence increase in MPS.
Therefore it seems it would be beneficial for amino acids levels to raise, after a meal, and fall, between meals, throughout the day rather than constantly striving to keep amino acid levels high, sipping your BCAA drink throughout the day. Thus it is unlikely that eating another meal 2-3 hours after your previous meal, would be beneficial.
It may therefore be more useful to consume your meals every 3-4 hours to maximise MPS allowing amino acid levels to rise and fall, any longer than 4-5hrs and MPS appears to drop.
More research on supplementing with BCAAs and leucine was carried out and concluded there is no benefit to this supplementation on top of consuming sufficient protein. (10-11)
But how about protein distribution throughout the day?
This was also shown in research carried out by Maddona M. et al, who examined the effects of protein distribution on 24 hrs on MPS. Either an even distribution of 31.5 ± 1.3, 29.9 ± 1.6, and 32.7 ± 1.6 g protein, per meal. Or skewed 10.7 ± 0.8, 16.0 ± 0.5, and 63.4 ± 3.7 g protein per meal. They ‘hypothesized that an even protein distribution (~30 g for breakfast, 30 g for lunch, and 30 g for dinner) would result in a greater 24-h muscle protein synthetic response than the same total amount of protein delivered in a skewed format (~10 g for breakfast, 15 g for lunch, and 65 g for dinner).’ (9)
Another recent study showed that, on average, 24 hour protein synthesis rates are about 25% higher if you space your protein intake out throughout the day, rather than eating the majority of it in one meal. (6) However, on the flip side research has also shown no difference between unevenly spreading your protein out compared to evenly spreading your protein over the day. (8)
At the moment the refractory period is a grey area and more research is needed, but is this worth stressing out about?
Definitely not if you are consuming adequate calories and the correct macronutrient, and fibre targets from mainly minimally processed foods. However, if you are a professional bodybuilder and looking for that extra 1% to beat your competition it may be worth considering.
Getting adequate protein, fats and carbs throughout the day comes first!
Given a diet high in protein sources, frequency and portion sizes will ultimately not make any meaningful impact for the majority of us.
Don’t worry if you missed a post-workout shake straight after your workout or that lunch time meal, worry about hitting your total protein, and calories for the day first as it has a greater impact on muscle gain and fat loss. This was shown in the research carried out by Brad Jon Schoenfeld, Alan Albert Aragon and James W Krieger.(7)
This article written and researched by Scott Edmed
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4. Paddon-Jones D, Sheffield-Moore M, Aarsland A, Wolfe RR, Ferrando AA. Exogenous amino acids stimulate human muscle anabolism without interfering with the response to mixed meal ingestion. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2005 Apr;288(4):E761-7.
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