The belief that you need to eat frequently runs rampant in the fitness and weightlifting communities. It’s actually rare to see a guy who knows what he’s doing who doesn’t think that he should be eating all the damn time. You know, to stoke the metabolic fire, prevent muscle catabolism, keep blood sugar levels steady, keep his muscles fuelled by a steady supply of amino acids / protein, and prevent his body from going into starvation mode and thus store fat more readily. That’s a lot to worry about …
We’ve been there and done that. The strange truth:
- Eating frequently does have a positive effect on your metabolism, due to the thermic effect of food (TEF). In fact, eating in general increases your metabolism. If you eat small meals frequently your metabolism will go up by small amounts frequently, and if you eat big meals infrequently, then your metabolism will increase by bigger amounts less frequently. So in theory as long as the type and amount of food eaten is the same overall, so is the net metabolic response (i.e. no downside whatsoever to your metabolism). But what about in the real world? Interestingly enough, a recent study (June 2012) looking into the effects of meal frequency on lean healthy young men indicated that our metabolism is actually higher with three daily meals than it is with fourteen. The macronutrient composition of the meals the participants were given is actually quite similar to what we recommend for ectomorphs, so the implications of these findings are pretty cool. (Study.)
- Muscle catabolism (i.e. your muscles getting smaller) won’t begin until several days after your previous meal, with one caveat: you must stimulate your muscles. This means that so long as you train three times a week (or more) reducing meal frequency will not result in any muscle catabolism whatsoever. A possible exception to this may be following an intense workout. We don’t advise skimping on post-workout nutrition.
- A healthy body is incredibly good at maintaining proper blood sugar levels in healthy dudes with a healthy diet. It would take upwards of 48 hours without food before there would be a noticeable difference in blood sugar levels. (Study.) The same study from point number one also shows that insulin sensitivity is better with three daily meals than it is with fourteen.
- Your body can actually produce most of the 27 amino acids on its own, so there’s no need to baby it. If you ate a big protein-filled meal even just once a day you’d have a steady supply of amino acids all day long for your muscles. Also, protein digests fairly slowly. The quickest of all, whey protein isolate, digests at a bit more than 10g/h, so 30g of whey would take 3-4 hours to digest. The same amount of casein protein, which digests at only 3-4g per hour, would take 8-10 hours to digest. Most protein sources fall somewhere in the middle. (study)
- Starvation mode? Hehehe. We fell for this one hook line and sinker. When you hear it explained it seems to make so much sense, but our body won’t notice a few hours without food, especially considering that it takes around a dozen hours to fully digest a Beastly meal. There are some hormones in our body that will induce a “starvation mode” effect and result in increased fat storage, like reduced leptin production, but that has nothing to do with meal frequency, and more to do with restricting carbohydrates and calories over an extended period of time (7 days on a restricted diet would result in a 50% drop in leptin secretions). Leptin plagues chubby guys trying to lose weight, but it isn’t something that us skinny guys trying to build muscle will ever need to worry about—so enough about that. To induce “starvation mode” via meal frequency you’d need to avoid food altogether for more than 60 hours. (study)
Where does the 9-meals-a-day myth come from?
These frequent eating myths are the result of slight misinterpretations of some famous studies. Most of these studies are correlation studies, and since eating frequently has come into vogue among the ultra-fitness guys there has been a correlation between fit guys and eating frequently. It isn’t that eating frequently necessarily produces a great body, but rather that guys that train and eat well also tend to eat frequently, and guys that don’t care about their diet or training eat haphazardly. This results in a correlation.
This myth is also easy to believe because frequent eaters often notice their body grumbling and complaining when it isn’t fed frequently (which may not be a problem for you, mr. ectomorph). Hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, insulin, glucagon, leptin, and ghrelin come into play when it comes to appetite and messing with it can produce a variety of effects. Some people get grumpy, some people get headaches, some people get uncontrollable cravings. They interpret these symptoms to mean that their blood sugar levels have dropped, that their body has run out of nutrition or that their hard-earned muscles have begun wasting away.
There are two simple reasons why your body grumbles and you may feel grumpy. The first is that most people these days are addicted to processed sugar and carbohydrates in a similar way that many of us are addicted to caffeine. If you don’t get your fix your body complains. The second reason is that your body has become habituated to it. You could also get habituated to eating less frequently though, depending on your preference. You may still get waves of hunger, but these waves of hunger aren’t necessarily an indication of anything going wrong, especially if you have a healthy lifestyle.
Now—I should add here that there are ways of pushing meal timing to the extreme. Lately intermittent fasting (IF) has become popular. This is a great fat loss technique, as it helps limit calorie intake while keeping meal sizes pleasantly large—but this is the opposite of what you’ll want to do as an ectomorph trying to build muscle. You may in fact find that eating every 2-3 hours is ideal for you, because starting out your appetite and stomach are rather small. A lot of our guys start off eating frequently, their bodies respond by producing more digestive enzymes, their appetite increases, and then they can progress to eating larger meals less frequently. Four meals a day is my personal preference, but everyone’s lifestyle is different, so we help our guys figure out what works best for them.
There are also a lot of incredibly intelligent experts out there that recommend eating schedules for a variety of reasons that have nothing to with the 5 popular myths listed up above. Some experts recommend eating many small meals a day because they find it helps people have better control over their cravings and results in better adherence to their diet. Intermittent fasting experts recommend eating intermittently so you can eat larger meals while restricting calories (amongst other reasons). There are lots of techniques out there that have a lot of validity to them. All of them are based on the same underlying principles of nutrition but tailored to different people, preferences, lifestyles and goals. Sadly most of them are tailored to men and women trying to lose weight, not at ectomorphs trying to build muscle.
All of our stuff is targeted at naturally skinny guys looking to rapidly build muscle and, secondarily, improve their health. For an ectomorph trying to build muscle and become a powerhouse you need to balance two factors:
- How much can you eat in one meal? If you can comfortably consume 1200 healthy calories in a meal you may be able to get away with having three big square meals a day. If your stomach complains after 700 calories you might need to eat four + a snack. There are lots of tricks to boosting meal calories—different macronutrients will fill you up to different amounts, liquid calories are easier on your appetite than solid calories, etc. There are lots of ways to tinker with meal size even if your appetite is small.
- How many meals fit comfortably into your schedule? Our members include bartenders, students, a coal mine worker, doctors, graphic designers, musicians, businessmen, military guys and pilots. Some of these guys work 10-14 hour straight shifts and some of them spend most of their time at home doing freelance design work or studying. You need to figure out what fits into your schedule and size your meals accordingly.
For most ectomorphs eating three or four meals with a couple snacks thrown in is the best way to go. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack before bed is a perfectly great way to build muscle like a beast. Breakfast, brunch, lunch, supper and a six course dinner followed by another late night meal and two snacks will also work—if you’ve got the time for it and love to eat.
I built 55-60 pounds of muscle through a mixture of obsessively eating 7 times a day and casually eating 4 times a day. Both produced equal muscle gains, although it took a bit of practice to get to the point where I could comfortably and enjoyably get in enough calories in just four meals. (I’m an ectomorph to the bone and have a very small appetite.) Once you have the muscle mass that you want it’s fine to eat fewer calories and eat even less frequently. In fact strategically eating less frequently is a great way to lose fat or maintain bodyfat at under 10% year round. At the time of writing this article I’m eating twice a day and leaner and more muscular than I’ve ever been:
Don’t freak out about having to eat every two hours or stress out about losing muscle mass if your stomach grumbles. But make sure to find a way to eat enough overall. There are some nutrition facts that are hard to avoid when looking to build muscle (or lose fat) but meal frequency isn’t one of them.
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