I want to take a minute today to explore meal frequency. Now, before I even begin, let me make one thing clear: adjusting the frequency and timing of your meals is very much a cherry-on-the-sundae situation. When it comes to actually hitting your goals – whether that means bulking, losing or maintaining – hitting your macros and sticking to your overall calorie intake is much more important… so make sure you’ve got that down before you even start to look at meal timing. Bear in mind too that meal frequency isn’t really going to affect fat loss. That’s something you can take care of by making sure your deficit is what it should be. Meal timing isn’t going to be the thing that melts off the pounds. Quite the opposite – it is, in fact, something you might want to consider when it comes to building muscle mass.
Let me just say it one more time though, before we go any deeper; when you start thinking about meal timing you’re pretty much fine-tuning things. It’s the finishing touch. The icing on the cake. Make sure you’ve taken care of all the big stuff first: get your training, diet and cardio workout in place… and only then start to think about how you can further optimise by playing with the timing of your meals.
Now for some science: when you consume a meal that’s high in protein, you’ll raise your levels of zero-concentration amino acids. There’s one in particular that we want to focus on, and that’s Leucine. Just two or three grams of Leucine is enough to stimulate muscular protein synthesis – the process that your body uses to build muscle. But, although it does stimulate this process, the effect is only temporary. According to one study, muscle protein synthesis after a high-protein meal peaks at around the forty-five to ninety minute mark, and then quickly falls back to baseline levels after about three hours.
Some people might think that three hours is therefore our magic figure. Eat every three hours, and you’ll be stimulating muscle growth throughout the day, right? Well… not quite. Things are actually a little bit more complicated than that.
Even though muscle protein synthesis drops back to its normal baseline level after three hours, your leucine levels will actually remain elevated for much longer – up to five hours in total. This is what causes muscle protein synthesis to have a refractory period. Essentially, there will be a time after you’ve stimulated muscle protein synthesis with a nice high-protein meal when you won’t be able to do so again, because your leucine levels are still riding high. You’ll actually need to wait for them to drop a little before you can effectively consume more food and stimulate more muscle growth. Once that’s happened (after about four or five hours) then you’ll be perfectly placed for another high-protein meal. You’ll spike your leucine levels once again, and stimulate more muscle protein synthesis.
Strictly speaking, you don’t have to wait the full five hours for your leucine levels to return to their baseline again. Think of three hours as your bare minimum – before then no meal is going to have its optimal effect, because your body just isn’t sensitive to the leucine you’ll be taking in. Personally, I usually eat every four to six hours. That’s what fits my schedule, and what I’ve found through trial and error to be the best for me. You’ll have to do your own experimenting and find a meal plan that works for you. That might be eating every three hours or every six, but the important thing is to ensure that your meals aren’t too close together, so that you can strike a balance between stimulating muscle growth as often as you can, and also maximising your anabolic response to each and every meal.
“What about if I’m following an intermittent fast style diet plan,” I hear you ask? Well, first up I have to say that if you are following this kind of diet … muscle growth might not be your main goal. All the research and data I’ve looked over points to the fact that intermittent fasting works fine when it comes to fat loss, but that it’s really not that optimal if you’re trying to grow more muscle. That being said, you have to do what works for you. Whether you like intermittent fasting because you have a hectic schedule, or because you just prefer eating big meals at the end of the day, or whatever… if it works for you, then do it. Remember what I said at the beginning of this article? Sticking to your diet plan and hitting your macros are by far the most important things. If intermittent fasting allows you to do these things, then as far as I’m concerned, DO IT!
Put it this way: I’d much rather see someone eating two or three times a day (but managing to stick to their macros and sticking to their planned calorie intake), than trying to eat four or five times a day, finding it too much for them, failing and giving up. Even when you’re making fine-tuning adjustments like this, you’ve got to still keep the big picture in mind. With meal timing, you’re optimising. And it’s no good optimising if you let your basic routine fall by the wayside.
Anyway, to summarise: eat too often, you won’t be making the most out of each meal. Your leucine levels won’t have dropped back to their baseline, and as such your body might not be sensitive and ready to grow more muscle. Eat too infrequently, and you’ll be missing opportunities to stimulate muscle protein synthesis throughout the day. Find a balance. Find something that works for you.
That’s all for now. Hope you guys find this helpful – and don’t forget to comment below and let me know what meal timings you’ve found work for you. Thanks for your support… and until next time: train hard and eat smart!