How Many Meals Per Day Should You Eat While Bulking?

Bodybuilders used to think that they needed to eat five, six, or even seven meals per day while bulking. If you asked him why he was eating so often, he would tell you that he needed to stoke the metabolic fire, prevent muscle catabolism, keep his blood sugar levels steady, and keep his muscles fuelled with a steady supply of amino acids / protein. Perhaps most importantly of all, he would tell you that he needs to prevent his body from going into starvation mode, which would cause him to store more body fat. That’s a lot to worry about.

Now that intermittent fasting is becoming popular, that idea is starting to die out. Instead of eating seven meals per day, it’s common for bodybuilders to experiment with eating as few as 1–3 meals per day. Now the idea is reversed. Those periods of fasting are good for limiting fat gain while bulking.

So. How many meals per day should you be eating while bulking? What meal frequency is going to produce the most muscle growth with the least amount of fat gain?

Will Eating More Often Reduce Fat Gain While Bulking?

There are a lot of myths about meal frequency. Let’s start by quickly going over how meal frequency interacts with body composition while bulking.

  1. Eating frequently does have a positive effect on your metabolism, due to the thermic effect of food (TEF). However, 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.)
  2. 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 won’t cause muscle loss. A possible exception to this may be following an intense workout. We don’t advise skimping on post-workout nutrition. (Or pre-workout nutrition. Having some carbs before training can boost workout performance.)
  3. Healthy bodies are incredibly good at maintaining proper blood sugar levels. 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.
  4. Your body can 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)
  5. Is starvation mode real? 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)

Why Do Bodybuilders Eat so Many Meals Per Day?

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 is less of a problem for ectomorphs, but it can still happen). Hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, insulin, glucagon, leptin, and ghrelin all interact with our meal schedule, so skipping meals 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’s a simple reason why your body grumbles when you skip a meal, though: your body has become habituated to your meal schedule. You could also get habituated to eating less frequently though, depending on your preference. That’s why the first few days of intermittent fasting can be uncomfortable, but as you get more used to it, you may even find that you prefer it. You may still get waves of hunger during your fasting periods, but these waves of hunger aren’t necessarily an indication of anything going wrong, especially if you have a healthy lifestyle.

Intentionally switching to intermittent fasting is quite different from accidentally skipping a meal, though. Your body likes routine. It will prepare your digestive system to digest foods at the same time each day. It will cue hunger at regular intervals, based on the schedule you get used to. When you interrupt that routine, it complains.

Now—I should add that intermittent fasting is more of a fat loss technique, as it helps limit calorie intake while keeping meal sizes pleasantly large. This is the opposite of what you’ll want to do as an ectomorph trying to build muscle. Here’s our article about intermittent fasting for bulking, but long story short, it’s not ideal for building muscle, and it makes it much harder to get into a calorie surplus. You can still build muscle while intermittent fasting, but it’s not the ideal approach, especially if you’re naturally skinny.

Different experts recommend different eating schedules for a variety of reasons. Some experts recommend eating many small meals per day because it can help people have better control over their cravings and improve adherence to their diets. Some experts recommend intermittent fasting so that you lose weight while still eating to fullness at dinner. The diets are polar opposites, but they both work because they’re tailored to different people, preferences, lifestyles, and goals.

As a naturally skinny guy who’s trying to bulk up, you may find that eating every 2-3 hours works better for you. After all, ectomorphs tend to have smaller appetites, smaller stomachs, and higher metabolisms, and bulking up means that you need to eat an abundance of calories.

How Many Meals Should You Eat while Bulking?

As an ectomorph trying to build muscle leanly, you need to balance two factors:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

I built 65 pounds of muscle through a mixture of obsessively eating seven times a day and casually eating four 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:

W Shane Duquette is an author for Bony to Beastly

So 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. If you have trouble eating enough calories, I’d avoid intermittent fasting. You’ll probably find it easier to eat more calories by squeezing in extra snacks instead.

About Shane Duquette

Shane Duquette, BDes, is a writer and illustrator with a degree in design from York University. He co-founded Bony to Beastly and Bony to Bombshell, where he specializes in helping skinny people bulk up.More about Shane here.

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20 Comments

  1. Christian on June 14, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Getting two meals and a snack together in the mornings, and carrying them with me to work is getting results, but if this does too, it could seriously simplify things for my schedule! Haha.

    Definitely gonna try this one out. Thanks for the tip!

  2. jon on August 31, 2012 at 4:09 am

    Do you ever notice guys in the gym who go just about everyday with high-intensity weightlifting (or so it seems)? And do you ever notice that these guys never gain weight? Its because their nutrition is sub-par. Sub-par in the “2-meals-a-day” sense… The breakdown and rebuilding process will never progressively support full-potential gains without exceeding your body’s average sustainable caloric intake, consistent dosages of protein, healthy testosterone levels, and basic nutritional maintenance. Im a body builder myself, and believe me, nutrition is 95% of the battle… It shouldn’t be played off as anything less. The rate of muscle building is actually completely reliant upon the person’s ability to feed themselves the right foods and in the right amounts, which is about every hour and a half. You got it wrong. Your looking at the body’s ability to survive as opposed to the body’s ability to thrive. Yes the body will survive a long time without food, but only if its not building muscle. If its building muscle, it uses up protein you feed it very quickly (like I said, about an hour and a half), and then it needs more to continue building. Your crazy if you think 40 grams of protein is going to last half a day during the rebuilding process. False information. Eat often, healthy, and in conservative amounts throughout the day and you will double your gains bro. Trust me.

    • Shane Duquette on August 31, 2012 at 7:02 pm

      Ah right on. I love having our articles challenged—keeps us on our toes!

      I absolutely agree with you about feeding your body the nutrients that it needs to thrive, and of course to gain the most muscle possible you’d want to be eating at a nice calorie surplus. You don’t need to eat OFTEN to do it though. Four 1000 calorie meals will get you just as far as eight 500 calorie meals, as you’d be consuming 4000 calories of the same nutrients either way.

      It sounds like with your frequent protein intake you’re talking about maximizing muscle protein synthesis (MPS)? With that in mind you would want to consume protein (ideally high in leucine/BCAAs) relatively regularly due to the refractory nature of MPS … but you’d max out on your anabolic muscle-building benefits eating just once every 4-6 hours. More than that is fine, but not any better.

      Eating three times a day has consistently proven to be just as effective as eating more frequently when the quality and quantity of the nutrients are matched. Eating frequently is always an option though, and it works great!

      If you’d like to contest this I welcome the challenge. We aren’t trying to push an ideal here, just share the most accurate information that we can.

    • Dane on January 28, 2015 at 11:25 am

      This guy doesnt know his stuff…there are only 21 amino acids, 9 of which are essential, the other 12 can be produced by the 9 essential but the essential amino acids can not be created by the body as a source of energy or to build muscle, they must be ingested. Also, blood sugar is effected before 48 hours. If you take your blood sugar after a meal and then twelve hours later you take it again there will be a significant difference in level. I agree with the overall point youre trying to make in the article but your info is just drawn from a hat of imaginary knowledge…i think muscle growth can happen with eating only a few times a day but your points to prove that are inaccurate.

    • Stip3 on February 14, 2018 at 4:01 am

      Wrong.Testosteron drops down everytime we eat(and HGH).Our body can take only what it can take.All the rest is waste of money and hormons disbalance.It can lead to serious health problems.Eat normally and train optimally.

  3. Brandon on January 22, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Yea, I pretty much agree with your analysis. Eating frequent meals is a bodybuilding culture myth promoted by guys on roids. Fact is, you can make all sorts of radical gains on roids regardless of what rediculous rituals you follow.

    Eating all throughout the day sucks and can be downright antisocial at times. What really matters is the training…then nutrition, sleep, fresh air, sunshine etc…

    If you’re not progressing in terms of muscle mass development, it’s probably a training, nutrition or rest issue. Not some silly eating ritual. Some studies have shown that being in a constant fed state actually hinders your body’s ability to produce HGH and raises cortisol.

    I guarantee that our ancestors weren’t running around on full bellies all day, and we’ve evolved accordingly.

  4. George on January 24, 2013 at 1:21 am

    Great stuff here. It is nice to find voices of reason in the ocean of BS and dogma that is the internet.

    I think the 6 meals a day thing proves to be totally impractical for most folks and because it is often presented as a must for diet success, people just quit.

    On a side note, I think it is also one of the bigger contributors to the plethora of over fat people around these days. The size of a meal, if you eat six a day to lose weight, is so small for most people that it is just a tease.

    • Shane Duquette on January 24, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      Ahaha “a tease” – yeah you’re right. I’ve always found it easiest to reduce calories by reducing the number of meals I eat, not the size of the meals that I eat. I enjoy eating to satiety (if not fullness) but find it very very easy and enjoyable to not eat as often!

      When bulking you’re right – it’s so much more practical to eat bigger meals! Otherwise you could easily spend half your day eating. Not bad if you’ve got an easygoing schedule and love to eat, but not the best for productivity or compliance!

  5. Lily C. on June 17, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Marry me.

  6. Alex on August 2, 2013 at 9:36 pm

    Hi there,

    Do you know anything about intermittent fasting “IF” ?

    It said that, with “IF” we can boost our Growth Hormone 2000 % on male.

    With this hormone we can burn our fat and gain more muscle.

    When people say that ectomorphs should eat more like a beast, but this method is saying the opposite..

    What is your opinion about this ? Have you ever tried this method ?

    Thanks bro..

    • Shane Duquette on August 3, 2013 at 3:41 pm

      Hey Alex, for sure! I find the research into intermittent fasting fascinating, and I’ve experimented with multiple forms of it many times!

      The effects of playing with meal timing (e.g. intermittent fasting) are fairly mild when compared with the effects of the quantity and quality of the food you eat … so keep in mind that this is largely a personal preference thing.

      For chubbier guys who struggle when trying to consume fewer calories, intermittent fasting is a great strategy as it reduces the number of meals instead of the size of the meals. Depending on their preference, this can be pretty sweet! Lots of guys enjoy eating really large meals, so it works well.

      Intermittent fasting for us ectomorphs is a bit of a different story.

      … but keep in mind that we aren’t saying the opposite at all! Intermittent fasting is saying that you can get great results even if you eat fewer meals, so long as the quantity and quality of the food that you eat is good.

      What we’re saying is that we don’t care how many meals you eat or when you eat them so long as you eat the quantity and quality of foods that you need to build muscle.

      Ours follows the same physiological principles … it’s just a little less strict.

      Here’s why things are different for ectomorphs when it comes to intermittent fasting:

      Intermittent fasting won’t make you grow unless you also eat like a beast.

      Eating like a beast is hard enough already for an ectomorph without also reducing the feeding window.

      The whole “point” of intermittent fasting is to find an enjoyable and effective way for naturally big/hungry guys to consume FEWER calories so that they can lose weight and thus be lean and muscular.

      The whole point of bony to beastly is to find an enjoyable and effective way for naturally skinny guys to consume MORE calories so that we can GAIN weight and thus be lean and muscular.

      As for growth hormone, yes, there are advantages with intermittent fasting. Enough of an advantage for it to make a noticeable difference? I don’t know. We’ll have to way to see how the studies pan out as time goes on. As things stand now the effect is very very mild when it comes to the difference in muscle you can build … so it’s not really worth worrying about.

      It IS worth experimenting with for fun though, and I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes on things to see how we can leverage the benefits for us ectomorphs! 🙂

      Does that help?

  7. Mark on November 19, 2013 at 11:55 am

    They say eat like a caveman. Caveman doesnt eat 9 times a day. He only eats when his hungry. 😉

  8. Nathan on February 28, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    I must say I enjoyed the article and am impressed with the amount of research done in order to reach the conclusion. I’m a mesomorph (with slightly endomorphic tendencies in terms of diet) and have found that a high number of meals a day is the best plan for me, regardless of the goal. This, however, is only because it keeps me feeling full all day. It feels less like a change to my diet when my calories are spaced out over 2-3 hour increments. I have numerous ectomorphic friends who have had great success in terms of muscle gain when following a similar plan, but I have just as many who have had great results with a traditional 3 meals a day plan. That being said, I was wondering if you had experimented any with the (sort of) new theory of absolute failure when it comes to weight training. I have read and heard of people experiencing drastic strength (and in time) muscle gains when loading up weight 20-25% higher than their ORM, and doing a negative movement followed by 15-20 seconds of struggle. Supposedly this causes an “evolutionary switch” to trigger, in effect causing crazy muscle growth and strength gain. This would be a once a week exercise.

    • Shane Duquette on March 7, 2014 at 9:48 pm

      Hey Nathan, sort of a HIT approach to training? It seems to work well for some outliers (everyone is a little different). For most people you’ll see much better results if you limit muscle damage by shying away from failure, allowing your muscles to recover more quickly, and thus allowing you to train those muscle groups more frequently. That seems to yield optimal results.

      That HIT approach of going to absolute failure (and even beyond) can indeed work, and surprisingly well given how little time it takes, but unless you’re very short on time and optimizing your plan for efficiency over results, you’d want to take a more classic approach where you use a higher frequency.

      (Higher frequency / avoiding failure is also better for some secondary reasons as well, like allowing you to practice your lifting technique more frequently and thus building up better proficiency at the lifts, it wouldn’t bring you to a point of fatigue where your form is likely to degrade and you’d get injured, etc.)

  9. karthik on October 27, 2014 at 5:38 am

    hello KARTHIK here, I wanted to ask you that whenever we eat protein fat and vitamin stuffs does its really transforms into a muscular body or else what is the problem of indigestion deals with it.. does it leads to reduction of muscles…

    • Shane Duquette on October 28, 2014 at 9:10 pm

      Hey Karthik, are you asking if indigestion prevents you from using those nutrients to build muscle? It would, to a limited extent. If you can’t digest those nutrients then they won’t contribute to building muscle… but presumably you’d still digest the other nutrients in the meals you’re eating even with a bit of indigestion. Still, best to avoid the foods that give you indigestion. (And this may be something to discuss with your doctor if it’s an ongoing problem!)

      I hope that helps 🙂

  10. Culum on December 1, 2014 at 12:18 am

    Nice one. Youve really eased my stress with that post. Two meals a day? Looking good, keep it up and thanks for sharing.

  11. Lindsey on February 19, 2016 at 4:54 pm

    I am an ectomorph myself and have been eating six meals a day including one protein shake with peanut butter and half a banana. I eat a large meal for breakfast and a carb filled one before and after my workouts. I am gaining muscle but not nearly as much as I should be. Anything I can do about this? If I were to eat Taco Bell everyday 3 times a day I’d gain weight but eating super clean the way I do even with high protein levels is not stacking on the muscle. Help! I am doing my first N.P.C Bikini show this July and would like to grow a booty and some shoulders.

    • Shane Duquette on February 20, 2016 at 1:31 am

      Hey Lindsay. First of all, you may dig our muscle-building site for naturally thin women: Bony to Bombshell. Your question is a good one for this site too though.

      It sounds like your approach to nutrition is solid. You’re eating often, you’re eating enough protein, you’ve got some carbs surrounding your workouts (although really loading up on the carbs is more of a guy thing, as more estrogen causes less glycogen retention).

      I would just say that somewhere between the two extremes is probably ideal. You don’t need to eat totally clean when trying to bulk up and add a lot of muscle mass. But you also shouldn’t eat a diet made up of total junk either, or you’ll gain fat instead of muscle. Try to get around 80% of your calories from whole foods, 20% from treats, supplements, ketchup and whatever else. Choose whole foods that you really enjoy too—the whole diet should be as enjoyable as possible.

      Also make sure to keep your calories in check. One of the reasons that junk food is so fattening is that people go way overboard with the calories. Let’s say you need 2,100 calories per day to grow. Right now you’re consuming a maintenance diet and eating clean—perhaps around 1,700 calories. Adding in a 400 calorie dessert every day would still leave you eating 80% of your calories from whole foods and may allow you to gain leanly at a moderate pace (maybe 0.5 pounds per week). If you switched to Taco Bell three times per day though you may accidentally bump your calories all the way up to, say, 3,000 per day. In that case, in addition to your half-pound of muscle, you might be adding on a pound or so of fat every week simply from the calorie onslaught.

      So feel free to dirty up your diet a little. (Or use other appetite tricks.) But don’t go full fast food.

      I hope that helps!

  12. BB on October 15, 2017 at 5:08 pm

    Very good read and an interesting but clearly effective approach to a muscle building diet!

    I also run a muscle building blog and it would be awesome to collaborate on something in the future!

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