If you’re confused about how often you should eat then you’re not alone. It seems that every few weeks we’re hearing different stories in the news that claim to have the right answer to this.
It’s no wonder most people are confused:
Every few hours. Three meals a day. Big portions. Small portions. Skip meals. Twelve meals a day.
Everyone has a different answer to the same question.
But clickbait headlines aside:
How many meals do you need to eat to build muscle?
We’re going to recommend two approaches below, for both people who have more time on their hands, and for busy people. Both have their pros and cons, as we’ll get into.
It’s confusing for a reason.
Years ago, we were told that we needed to eat every few hours to build a better body and to improve our health, then we were told to skip several meals all together. 1
This has made it fashionable to only have 2 meals a day versus the typical approach of eating every 2-3 hours to “stoke the metabolism”.
Studies around this topic are a bit all over the place too.
They cover a wide range of eating patterns each with their own set of pros and cons.
One study shows it works:
And then we have the other side:
That’s just the reality of research in this area.
But don’t worry, I’m going to talk through all sides of it, and offer some solutions.
If you've picked up a bodybuilding magazine, then you've probably seen diet plans full of this.
Does it work, and why is it so popular?
It was believed that eating every 3 hours often would increase your metabolic rate. 2 However, not only has this been disproven (study, study, study), but it's not a reason for why it would be recommended in a muscle-building diet anyway.
This was also linked to the belief that eating smaller, more frequent meals would help even out blood sugar levels. However, this once again is not true (study).
So yeah, there's been quite a few myths behind eating often.
There are some significant benefits to eating more often, especially where skinny guys are concerned.
If you're eating more meals, you won't be eating the same size meals as you would be if you were eating 3 meals. Because of this, the portion sizes will be smaller, and you'll be able to reach your calories easier without your appetite becoming a problem.
This is a big deal for true ectomorphs, as due to our smaller frames it can be a struggle to fit the calories into our smaller stomachs 3 and research has proven that you can just fight that (study) - Meaning the smaller your stomach, the fewer calories you can consume per meal, and the less likely you are to gain weight.
This would usually be a dream if it were not for the fact that you wanted to consume enough calories to gain weight, not lose it. This might be a struggle still, which is why you want to focus on not having your meals as fully stacked plates. Instead, snacks and shakes are a better choice to get your calories up without filling your stomach a great deal.
Eating snacks vs increasing your portions sizes are more useful for bulking (study) due to “reducing eating behaviors, thereby increasing energy intakes and body weight”.
Because you'll be eating more often, you'll be able to increase the amount of protein synthesis that happens. Remember, to maximise this you'll be wanting to consume protein every few hours, as it peaks around 40g (when also weight training).
NOTE: We've covered protein usage in great detail within this guide to protein. If you're not sure of protein synthesis's purpose, how much to have, or why it's even essential, then I highly recommend reading it.
As I already covered, protein is crucial for pretty much every function in our body. It's needed for overall health and tissue repair.
Increasing it (especially protein-synthesis) really has no downside for a bulking diet, and offers a lot of benefits.
Cortisol is our body's primary stress hormone (naturally built-in alarm system) which is linked to our fight or flight response. It can help control blood sugar levels, regulate metabolism, help reduce inflammation, and help with better memory formulation.
Too little cortisol or too much is bad for us. We typically want some stress on our bodies, like weight lifting, however too much can be bad for our health (causing anxiety, depression and other issues) (study).
A study looked at consuming less frequent meals (via intermittent fasting). The group who consumed less regular meals had not only more cortisol but less testosterone too (study) leading to less muscle growth and more fat gain. However, it's fair to note that IF has been proven to have a lot of benefits for health and fat loss too (study, study)
So it would seem that eating often is the only way and the bros were right all along, huh?
Well, let's take a look at the other side.
This is where you'll be eating a few meals a day. The usual eating habit is breakfast, lunch and dinner.
It's most likely what you're used to doing, before starting any kind of diet routine.
So is eating a few times a day less effective than eating more often?
The apparent downside to only eating a few meals per day is that it makes the calories you need to get into each meal much harder to reach.
For example, if your diet was 4000 calories per day, it might look like this:
571 calories per meal if you were to follow a 7 meals/day plan, however, with a 4-day meal plan (and that still might be out of reach time-wise) you'd need 1000 calories per meal.
Now obviously all meals aren't created equal. Some might be 600, and then you'd need to make up that 400 calorie drop in another meal.
Depending on how foods fall on the satiety index, this could be fixed. However, you might have particular foods you prefer which just aren't easy to shovel down.
And shovelling down this many calories in one sitting isn't as easy as you might think. It takes time to consume the amount of food you might need to eat in just a few sittings.
This is the side that most trainers don't talk about when they address this topic. Instead, they talk about all the free time you'd have not cooking, and how you can eat whatever you like. Instead, the reality looks more like this:
"The longest breakfast of my life - Of course, I knew before I started this experiment, the food would be a challenge. But I only thought about the amount of food and fitting it all in my stomach. I never considered how long it'd take me to actually eat it."- Nate Green
So while your old breakfast might have been wolfed down in a few minutes, actively chewing the food with pleasure, reading to start your day, this approach might be a different story.
20+ minutes of chewing, trying your best to get the food down as quickly as possible isn't what you probably set out thinking it would be.4
However, if your job is busy, and only allows you to have breakfast, lunch break (45 minutes) and you get home late (training on the way home), then this might be the only option. It's still manageable, especially as you could multitask eating and doing something you enjoy during your lunch (reading, learning, listening to a podcast) which means eating can become more passive when it needs to be.
Let's look at some other benefits to this.
Although quite a few articles say otherwise, consuming fewer meals can lower your average daily blood sugar levels, although the spikes might be more significant (due to the number of calories being consumed) overall their levels are much lower. (study)
The Norwegian Meal Frequency Project (study) showed that the 3-meal group gained more weight, lean body mass and strength than the 6-meal group, while fat gain was similar between both groups..
And finally, a reduced meal frequency can prevent the development of obesity and chronic diseases and extend life spans in laboratory animals (study, study). However, as always, more human studies would be helpful.
The following two frameworks are my two favourites, and they're the ones I find myself going to all the time.
They're just as effective as one another – it all comes down to personal preference.
The main thing to getting your plan right is being consistent and building a habit with what you eat, quality food and getting in your calories (which is covered all throughout this bulking diet guide).
Eating More Often
If you like the idea of eating often, because you love food and see the benefits of maximising protein synthesis, and increasing insulin often, then you might want to choose this plan.
Most of us, in modern life, have breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The 3/2 approach takes the three solid meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and adds two strongman shakes (a homemade drink we show in our program The Skinny To Superhero Formula - we'll give you a simple recipe to follow in the appendix).
01 - Breakfast
Coffee (black or a tablespoon of cream) Bacon, eggs, green veg, porridge (in almond milk) + nut butter *Fish Oil + MV + Greens drink
1.1 - The Strongman Shake*
02 - Lunch
Chicken, Mexican rice, salad with olive oil, nuts
2.1 - The Strongman Shake**
03 - Dinner
Mashed potatoes Beef + Gravy Onions, peppers, salsa *(fish oil on the side + multivitamin)
3.1 - The Strongman Shake (optional)*
The best part about this is that it goes against what most people assume they need to eat like when it comes to eating often (aka 6 full meals a day, tuna out of a can, crying into your chicken and rice).
Instead, it focuses on adding just enough extra food into usual eating habits, whilst the rest comes from snacks (in this example, the strongman shake, however, this could be from other snacks that pack a nutritional calorie punch too - I used to make protein flapjacks as an alternative).
Pro Tip: If you struggle to remember to eat or find the day passing you by as you're stuck in a project, then rely on The Strongman Shakes and set a timer on your phone (or smart watch/clock). The more you do this, the more of a habit it will be.
Note this is less about questions which food groups feature in each meal and more to do with how often you eat.
What belongs in them, is more nutrient timing (which we'll get to).
Eating Less Often
If the above method is too time consuming, because you work long hours without a break, or have a big appetite in general (not all ectomorphs are created the same), then this one might be for you.
Instead of 5-6 meals in total, you'd be cutting that in half and having 2-3 meals.
There are obviously some caveats that you should be aware of:
- It bears repeating that appetite is going to be a big issue for many as the portions would need to be pretty huge
- You'll need more time for the actual eating
- Digesting food will be more of a problem (For ways to help with that go here - appendix)
Here's how I recommend following an infrequency eating pattern using the bigger smaller bigger approach:
- Two solid meals:
- This is where you'll be getting the bulk of your calories from. You'll want to split them into preferably even amounts with one falling at breakfast and one at dinner.
- Now these might be 1500 calories each, which can be tough if you're not strategic on where you get your foods from (we cover this in the appendix section)
This is an opportunity to get protein and fast carbs in and although there isn't a huge need to get it in post-workout, as the workout window isn't necessary, it can help you get you through to your next meal, and gives you another touch of protein synthesis.
I originally started offering this approach after an experiment done by Nate Green. The main difference between this plan and what he did was
- A. Nate had to consume more than you will (he's a big dude), so it was pretty much a full-time job for him.
- B. He fasted for 32 hours every Sunday (to give his digestive system a break and help reset his insulin sensitivity) (study, study)
And although fasting can be helpful, it isn't needed if you're a true ectomorph, as your insulin sensitivity can most likely handle the amount you'll be eating all in one go.
These are just examples, and obviously, the meal size is dependent on your macros and how many calories you need to hit.
Still, stuck with which one to choose?
- If you have more free time and find it easy to eat on schedule, then I'd recommend the 3/2 approach.
- Struggle with time and aren't a big fan of food? Do you eat to live? The bigger smaller bigger approach is probably best.
Pick one to try for yourself and stick with it for 7 days.
Does how often you eat even matter?
This is the cherry on top, or for some, the anxiety on top.
The answer, and I know it’s frustrating: it depends on you.
As long as you're getting in the calories and macros you need to reach your goals, you'll be ahead of most people out there overthinking and forgetting the bigger picture.
Time and time again, smart people get tripped up by focusing on the finer details.
They sacrifice quality time with others, overall quality of food, working out all for the sake of the smaller stuff like how often to eat or when they have carbs and when they don't.
Both approaches outlined above (and most things I share about nutrient timing, scheduling and frequency) come down to personal preference and habit.
You need to stick with what you can stick with.
If you can be more consistent with one approach, but the other one shows a 5% increase in muscle growth, then choose the one you can do more often.
Remember: Consistency will get you results in the long-run that a one-off percentage can’t do. Don’t chase the number.
Intermittent fasting is a topic most people have heard about now. It's where you fast for a given period (more on this later). ↵
Metabolic rate is the number of calories your body burns within a given period.↵
I struggled with this when I started bulking again after a break from it. I'd feel sick trying to get all the food into my system in the morning. Feeling bloated, having a mini-sick in my mouth, fucking over my digestive system. There are ways to make this easier on your digestive system, and easier on your life. But I went through a lot of this the hard way too. ↵