Written by Stefan Ianev (Clean Health Research & Development Specialist)
In recent years there has been a trend shift from consuming smaller, more frequent meals, which most people falsely believed would increase their metabolism, to eating fewer meals over a confined time period.
The theory of having fewer meals over a smaller eating window is to ‘rest’ the digestive system and increase autophagy. It is currently a ‘big-buzz’ word that is coming up more frequently, due to the rise of intermittent fasting.
Autophagy is a natural process by which the body cleans itself out by removing cellular debris and shifting towards cellular repair and cleaning. Phagy means to eat or devour, so autophagy literally means to self-eat or self-devour. It is thought to promote anti-aging and other health benefits.
Thermic Effect of Feeding:
In reality, we’ve known for more than 30 years that the thermic effect of feeding is not influenced by meal frequency but by the macronutrient composition and total calories consumed.
Proponents of intermittent fasting believe that fasting is the best way to increase autophagy. While fasting does indeed increase autophagy, that is more related to the caloric restriction associated with fasting rather than the time-restricted eating period.
To date, there are no studies that show intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating improves body composition or other health markers more than calorie equated continuous feeding. The benefits for health and body composition are more a result of the caloric restriction.
The Pros & Cons of Intermittent Fasting:
For some people, intermittent fasting or timed caloric restriction may suit their schedule and/or lifestyle better which can help improve dietary adherence. Since dietary adherence is the key to long term dietary success, this crucial factor cannot be overlooked.
Other people may feel terrible following a time-restricted eating protocol and may find themselves feeling hungry and irritable during the fasting period, then binging out and failing to adhere to their caloric deficit during the eating window. For these people, intermittent fasting or timed caloric restriction may not work well at all.
That is why it is important to consider the individual and their dietary preferences.
What’s the Difference?:
From my experience, the majority of the population falls in the latter category. For most people, eating smaller more frequent meals promotes better blood sugar management throughout the day, which improves energy levels and generally leads to better appetite control.
Those individuals that gravitate towards time-restricted eating generally either have a poor appetite in the morning or have very busy schedules that do not permit them to eat more than several times per day.
Apart from blood sugar management, another benefit of consuming more frequent meals is that it may promote greater anabolism throughout the day. That’s because there is a cap to how much protein synthesis can be stimulated from a single feeding. Also, once protein synthesis has been stimulated, it only remains elevated for about 3 hours.
That means if you miss a window to stimulate muscle protein synthesis earlier in the day, you can’t make up for it by having more protein later in the day. If maximum muscle growth is the goal, then more frequent feeding may be optimal in order to keep muscle protein synthesis elevated throughout the day.
For fat loss, it may not matter as much since the anti-catabolic effects of a meal will generally persist for up to about 5-6 hours, and it is unlikely that there is going to be much muscle growth occurring when in a deficit.
My general recommendation regarding meal frequency is to eat about every 3-5 hours, for a total of 4-6 meals per day. For most people that will be the sweet spot. In each meal, you should aim for 0.25-0.4g of protein per kg to ensure you are hitting the threshold to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
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