Absolutely nothing is more frustrating than working your ass off in the gym for months on end and seeing no results. The hardest thing about losing weight or achieving other fitness goals is mastering the balance of effective exercise and eating habits. We all know this, it shouldn’t be news to anyone, but knowing it isn’t enough. Consistency both in and out of the gym is the key to success. The big question though has always been, what is the most effective frequency / amount to eat? Of course this all depends on your motive at the gym. If you want to lose weight, you’ll have to eat differently than if you want to build muscle. For the sake of this article we’ll focus on gains, since that’s what we’re all about here at PMF.
Old bro wisdom was to eat every 3 hours to activate non-stop anabolism. This even had people waking up in the middle of the night to drink a protein shake! New strategies like intermittent fasting and ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ have diverted from this old rule and people have recently dismissed it as “bro science”. But there could still be something to it.
Fitness experts Brad Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon wrote a paper entitled “How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle building? Implications for daily protein distribution”, which comes to a conclusion that to maximize anabolism, you should consume protein at a target intake of 0.4 grams per kilogram across a minimum of 4 meals a day based on a 16 hour waking time. This conclusion says it’s best to eat every 4 hours, which is not far off that OG bro code rule.
The reasoning behind this conclusion is known as the muscle-full effect. This is what happens when the body reaches its limited capacity to increase muscle protein synthesis after a single meal. The anabolic ceiling for muscle protein synthesis is actually quite low. Studies have shown that the body only needs roughly 20 grams of protein before it stops using it for protein synthesis and starts using the extra amino acids for energy production instead. Which is also good, of course! We want the extra energy as it definitely helps with stamina, but if gains are what you’re after, you want to maximize protein synthesis.
Everyone’s anabolic ceiling will be different of course, the math behind it amounts to approximately 0.4 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight and one would need 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram, per day for maximum muscle growth. It all seems a bit confusing, but simply put, your bodyweight and your ultimate training goals are what will determine how much protein per day and per meal you should eat. If you divide protein intake using the formula of 1.6 (protein per day, per kilogram), by 0.4 (anabolic ceiling) it will equal 4 meals a day.
Seems logical, yeah? Unfortunately there are some very valid holes in this theory that need to be looked at. First of all, full body strength training can delay the muscle-full effect. This is actually a tick in the pro column for bodybuilders, as the anabolic ceiling can be manipulated and heightened and the muscle-full effect can be delayed with full body training. The more strenuous and complete a workout is, the more muscle growth your workout will stimulate. A total body workout will equate to more protein synthesis after the fact than a workout that only trains one muscle group. For bodybuilders and frequent total body trainers, you will need more protein post-workout than the required 20 grams to maximize muscle growth through protein synthesis.
Another hole in the ‘4 meals a day’ theory has to do with fasting. Intermittent fasting is a trend right now, and for good reason. Fasting will accelerate the cellular anabolic response after a meal. Meaning it could be just as beneficial, depending on your goals, to eat 3 or even just 2 meals a day. This rule only applies if you’re consuming meals of mostly whole foods (not just protein supplements like whey powder), and if you consume the majority of protein post workout, pre-bed and after fasting. It’s a different story if you’re cutting, or if you’re in hardcore recovery mode. For those sedentary times, it would be better to get most of your protein from a single meal. This will contribute to muscle retention during cutting or recovering.
It seems to, like everything else, completely depend on your lifestyle, body type and ultimate goals in the gym. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t pay attention to protein distribution or the quality of food you eat, eating 4+ meals a day could work well for you. The most important thing to pay attention to is that your body is getting the right amount of amino acids when it needs them for muscle growth. The amount of meals per day isn’t the deciding factor – it completely has to do with the level of attention you’re paying to protein distribution and food quality.
Honestly, the evidence doesn’t seem conclusive either way, so the best advice here would be to experiment with meal frequencies and see what works best for you.
If you have time constraints with preparing meals for your busy work week. A good way to solve this problem is to divert some of your funds to a company who will organise this for you. PMF has two meal prep affiliations. See below :
Receive a free smoothie with first order from @gqskitchen
When you add “PMF” to the ‘special requests section’
”PMF10” gets you 10% off any order
”PMF25” also give you £25 off their first order (best used on a 5-day trial).