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 protein. Perhaps most importantly of all, he would tell you that he needed 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, and most of it isn’t true.
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. But there’s a problem here, too. Going through periods of fasting slows down our muscle growth.
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.
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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)
- 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 Per Day?
As an ectomorph trying to build muscle leanly, 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. On the other hand, if you get indigestion and feel lethargic from eating big meals, you might need to eat four meals per day + 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.
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:
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.
Shane Duquette is the founder of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, each with millions of readers. He's gained seventy pounds and has over a decade of experience helping more than ten thousand naturally thin people build muscle. He also has a degree in design, but those are inversely correlated with muscle growth.