Taking your food with you? Eating every 3 hours? Are you sick of it? I was…
Meal Frequency – The Dogma That Will Not Die…
Yes, I called the idea of eating 5-6 small meals per day dogma. I have not lost my mind and I am not ignorant, or uneducated. I am quite the opposite. I have spent many hours reading and learning about this common misconception we as fitness enthusiasts and bodybuilders have been mislead to believe. We have come to believe that eating 5-6 small meals throughout the day is superior and optimal when pursuing that coveted physique. I used to subscribe to the notion that one could only process 30-35 grams of protein for each meal and any excess would just pass through your digestive system unused or “wasted.” This notion has been touted by many fitness pros as well as protein supplement companies for years.
My intention with this article is to challenge you to think outside of what you have always been told or led to believe about the multiple-meals-per-day dogma that is so popular within the fitness and bodybuilding community.
My Story – Dispelling the OCD Multiple Meals per Day Myth
During the summer of 2007, I was dieting for a photo shoot and of course, like any other person getting into photo shoot condition, I was counting every calorie, timing my meals perfectly, and eating small protein meals every 2-3 hours for a total of 6-7 meals per day. I made sure my carb choices were low on the glycemic index and that protein was the bulk of my food intake. I was very obsessive about eating every 3 hours, whilst making sure I avoided carbs after 7 pm in fear of “storing them as fat.” I totally bought into the entire philosophy of small frequent meals to keep my metabolism humming along. I was miserable, obsessive and anal when it came to food choices. Needless to say I didn’t have much of a social life that summer.
I did however get into pretty decent shape, had a successful shoot, and was proud of the photos. On the flip side, I was tired of being so obsessed with my views toward food that I often found myself absolutely bingeing when deciding to have a “free meal.” It felt like I was losing my grasp on what I believed I knew so well. I was tired of constantly depriving myself of filling meals, and always feeling remorse when I wanted to go out and enjoy pizza and wings with my friends or when I decided to go off my diet and enjoy some birthday cake. I had to make a change, otherwise I was sure to continue having this unhealthy relationship with food.
My Research Began
During that same summer of 2007 I found Lyle McDonald’s main forums and the journey to nutritional enlightenment began. I noticed one particular member was experimenting with Intermittent Fasting for fat loss and lean body mass retention. When I first read his posts I just knew he was some psycho nut job and his muscles were sure to fall off if he ever went any longer than 3 hours without protein. However, I was so sick and tired of being an OCD freak about meal timing, that I decided to keep an open mind. I was out to find a simple approach to enjoy the lifestyle of training and building my body without being a narcissistic social pariah.
I continued to lurk and post occasionally with questions. After many nights googling and reading about this concept of fasting with no adverse effects to my lean body mass, I was very intrigued. This particular member on the forums was experimenting with 16 hour fasts followed by an 8 hours window of feasting. He controlled calories just as he would on any other diet, ensuring that protein and EFA requirements were met. The only difference was that he was consuming large amounts of food 2-3 times within the 8 hour window, and then fasting from the time he went to sleep until mid afternoon the next day. For instance, say he was consuming 240 grams of protein per day. At 3 large meals that is 80 grams of protein per serving. I just knew that would be “suboptimal” at the very least, not to mention what other complications that might occur due to fasting. Keep in mind these “complications” I speak of are only what I had heard from some fitness folks that never looked at digestion from a scientific view point. They merely had been repeating what they were told without investigating for themselves. They just took someone else’s word as bond, and never thought to second guess it.
Martin Berkhan of LeanGains was the experimental poster who I was closely watching. His results after experimentation were nothing short of incredible. He seemed to retain his lean body mass during his diet that consisted of daily 16 hour fasts with ease. What did this mean? He was getting to enjoy large meals daily, even when dieting, and actually experiencing satiety. Satiety was very foreign to me, especially whilst dieting and eating 5-6 meals of 400 calories or less. I was curious, and bound to make this work for me.
How Did I Break My Pattern and Change My Thinking?
I had been conversing with Martin via email, and decided to give this fasting thing a shot. I remember the first day I ate a huge meal without any personal remorse or feelings of “cheating.” I had fasted all throughout the day. I remember grilling the fattest steak, baking a few potatoes, and preparing a fairly large bowl of corn for my first meal. I kept track of the calories and made sure I landed the macro nutrients perfectly. This was the first time in months that I had eaten a very large meal with no regret. I no longer felt “bad” for enjoying my food. I decided I wanted to see what long term effects this would have on my body composition and to dispel the eating carbs after 7 pm myth. I continued fasting intermittently for a few months on my own and eventually consulted with Martin. To my surprise I found that in the end, as long as protein and EFA requirements are met, the amount of calories are the only variable when trying to lose body fat.
I went from 6-8 meals a day to 2-3 meals a day depending on my training schedule. I found myself eating “unclean” food all the time with no adverse effects on my body composition. I was pleased to see that killing a box of cereal and eating 100 grams of protein before bed would not make me wake up fat and bloated. I did this over and over and over to find out that only calories matter, and meal frequency isn’t that big of a deal.
Fast Forward Until Now
Up until a few months ago I have been doing a modified version of Intermittent Fasting. I have been more lax on the eating window and some days I might only have a 13-14 hour fast as opposed to a 16 hour fast. I have used this method for dieting, bulking and maintenance with much success. I have come to the conclusion that the 6 meals a day dogma can die and I hope it dies for good. It only makes for obsessive, pedantic and stressed out fitness enthusiasts. The lifestyle should be enjoyable and I now enjoy my life in fitness again. I am no longer obsessed about meal timing. If I want to go out to dinner, I go and I enjoy it. I simply don’t worry about if it fits in with my diet for the day. Life is too short to worry about minutiae. Here I am one and a half years later, with no obsessiveness related to food. I simply eat when I want and make sure that my calories are in line with my current goals. I enjoy ice cream, cereal, pasta and many other foods deemed “unclean” by many. I make sure I keep an objective approach regarding my diet and training. So far it is serving me quite well.
If you still are not convinced, I encourage you to research a little and try this experiment out for yourself. Throw all preconceptions about meal timing to the wind and go back to the 3 square meals a day for a while. See what happens. Lyle McDonald recently wrote an incredible article on this subject. Read it for your own good and apply it for peace of mind. Meal Frequency and Energy Balance: Research Review
(1/4/11) Update: I’ve since written my own piece on intermittent fasting. Make sure you check it out.