Have you ever wondered how often you should eat to build muscle?
If you have, then I’m sure you’ve heard some people say that you should eat every 3 hours in order to spike your muscle building processes enough times during the day.
But, I’m also sure that you’ve heard some people say that it doesn’t matter how often you eat, as long as you get in enough energy and nutrients to support muscle growth on a daily basis.
So, how is it? Should you try your best to eat often, or can you eat less frequently and still build muscle just fine?
Let’s look at that.
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The Muscle Growth Dieting Hierarchy
The best way to clear out how often you should eat when it comes to building muscle, is to understand the dieting hierarchy of importance.
But, before looking at that I first want to make one thing clear:
We humans have for as long as it’s known tried to find shortcuts instead of straining ourselves a bit extra and just being patient to reach a desired goal.
This is something that salespeople and marketers know and take advantage of.
And when it comes to dieting, this is usually by praising things like meal frequency, nutrient timing, and supplements etc. to the skies.
So, what I want you to do is train yourself to think critically when you’re searching for and taking in information that you think might help you.
Now with that said, let’s look at the truth surrounding diet and muscle growth:
(Pyramid introduced by Dr. Eric Helms)
As you can see in this pyramid, how often you eat, aka meal frequency and timing, is placed 4th in the order of importance.
This means that you have to make sure you’re consuming enough calories, the correct amount of macronutrients, as well as eating a wholesome diet that contains a full spectrum of micronutrients and fiber, before you focus on how often you eat, or how well you time your meals.
Because here’s the thing:
Meal frequency and nutrient timing will account for maybe 10 % of your muscular development, at most! And this is true, only if the other factors are in place first.
You could have the most perfect meal frequency and nutrient timing in the world, but if your other factors is not in check, then you won’t see the results you’re after.
Should You Care About Meal Frequency And Nutrient Timing At All?
A couple years ago there was a meta-analysis done by Alan Aragon, Brad Schoenfeld and James Krieger that looked at the effect of meal frequency on body composition.
Note: A meta-analysis is a gathering of all or many available studies and data on a specific topic, that’s reviewed and assembled into a final conclusion, meaning it’s a highly reliable source of information.
Here’s the results:
They found no significant difference on body composition changes when comparing a 1-2 times a day meal frequency to a 5+ times a day meal frequency. And their conclusion was:
“Given that adherence is of primary concern concerning nutritional prescription, the number of daily meals consumed should come down to personal choice if one’s goal is to improve body composition.”
With that said though, when it comes to meal frequency for muscle growth, Eric Helms said the following in this awesome interview with Radu Antoniou:
“The current research suggests that to maximize protein synthesis it’s best to have three or more protein feedings spread out throughout the day. Just one or two feedings should be inferior although we don’t know by how much. Probably very little.”
So, the take home message is that in order to get the most optimal environment for growth, you should have at least 3 rather evenly spread meals including protein, throughout the day.
Okay, so meal frequency isn’t that important. But, what about nutrient timing? That must be important, at least after training, right?
When it comes to nutrient timing for improving muscle growth, the buzz during the last decade has been all around pre, peri and post workout nutrition. In fact, a ton of research has been funded by large supplement companies with the goal to find small benefits of eating certain nutrients around workouts, mostly protein and carbs.
So, what’s been found? Just how important is the timing around training really?
Well, let’s start with another meta-analysis done by Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld where they looked at wheter there is a post-exercise anabolic window.
They found that having high quality protein (whey) available (20-40 g depending on body size) within two hours post-workout will maximize the anabolic response.
However, how much difference it will make on overall muscular growth is very slim.
Because the findings didn’t quite reach statistical significance.
Furthermore, they found that you don’t necessarily have to drink that protein shake directly post-workout either (as often advertised).
If you ate a large meal including a lot of protein 2-3 hours pre-workout, you already have protein in these amounts available to maximize muscle protein synthesis post-workout.
They also go on to say that:
“Pre-and post-exercise meals shouldn’t be separated by more than approximately 3-4 hours, if however, protein is delivered within particularly large mixed-meals (which are inherently more anticatabolic), a case can be made for lengthening the interval to 5–6 hours.”
So, having protein immediately post workout, isn’t that important if you’ve been eating large and well before the workout.
Not only that, they also looked at the timing of carbs, and even though they lack data to form any concrete recommendations, the assumption can be made that carbohydrate availability before, during and after exercise is of greater importance for endurance as opposed to strength or hypertrophy goals.
Furthermore, the widely claimed notion that you should combine protein and carbs post-workout for optimal gains have been challenged by recent studies as well.
A study by Koopman et al found that adding carbohydrates in quantities of (0.15, or 0.6 g/kg/hr.) post full body resistance training to amplify the protein intake…
…didn’t increase whole body protein balance during a 6-hour post-exercise recovery period, compared to the protein-only treatment.
When Is Meal Frequency And Nutrient Timing Important?
The studies that were reviewed in both of the meta-analyses above was, as usual, mostly done on obese, non-trained individuals.
In the meta-analysis, out of the 15 studies that was pooled only 3 was on lean populations, and 2 on exercising individuals.
And we know that beginners and obese people respond very differently to exercise and diet than what well-trained and/or lean individuals do.
In fact, for people who’s more advanced and/or lean, such as dieters preparing for a bodybuilding or physique contest, or highly advanced sports athletes, then meal frequency gets increasingly more important.
This is true because the constant signaling of “lose muscle, lose muscle, lose muscle” caused by the body when the body fat percentage gets unnaturally low, or when an athlete is at peak performance training for a specific sport.
This infographic from an awesome article about nutrient timing over at Precision Nutrition explains perfectly how important nutrient timing (and frequency) really is depending on circumstance:
So, except for the very leanest, muscular, and most peaked bodybuilders and athletes, meal frequency and nutrient timing should be viewed more as a tool for long-term psychological adherence to the diet, with only small actual physiological benefits.
In fact, when it comes to getting lean and muscular, this is basically how the different dieting factors can be categorized:
Follow a Meal Frequency And Nutrient Timing That You Enjoy And Can Stick To
This is important.
Since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of physiological benefits or drawbacks of different meal frequencies, unless you’re a top level athlete, then you might as well use it to your psychological advantage.
And this is something I do it all the time.
When it comes to meal frequency I believe wholeheartedly in intermittent fasting.
For me, that’s a diet structure which keeps me full, satisfied and happy, especially when I’m cutting.
And it also helps me stay lean a whole lot easier when I’m bulking to put on muscle. Best of all, when intermittent fasting is done right it isn’t negative on muscle growth either.
If you’re interested in using intermittent fasting when building muscle, check out these articles:
- Intermittent Fasting for Muscle Growth – Gains Killer or Gains Winner?
- Where To Place Your Workout When Intermittent Fasting?
And when it comes to nutrient timing, I’m not stressing myself up over having to eat immediately post workout. Sometimes I enjoy a protein bar or a shake of whey after training, mostly because I like eating and drinking these stuff occasionally. Also, if I’m training fasted then I think it’s optimal to have protein immediately post workout, but not otherwise.
Training Is The Most Important Aspect
Now, I want to make something completely clear:
Even though this post is about dieting, or more specifically, how often and when you should eat when trying to build muscle, I still want to shine some light on the importance of training.
When it comes to building muscle, training for progressive overload, which means consistently getting better in the gym, is the most important factor, even more so than your calorie intake.
“Training is what signals muscle growth, your diet only allows it to happen.”
So, make sure that you’re actually using a solid strength training program before you start focusing on the diet.
Summary: How Often and When Should You Eat To Build Muscle?
When it comes to setting up your diet for building muscle, this is basically what you need to know about meal frequency & nutrient timing:
- Meal frequency and timing is much less important than calories, macronutrients and micronutrients.
- Timing of nutrients (protein) around training do maximize the anabolic response. However, the benefits are small and if food is ingested in medium to large quantities anywhere within 3-5 hours before the workout, muscle protein synthesis will be maximized anyways.
- For the average person, there seems to be no significant difference on body composition between different meal frequencies. It might be for more lean and muscular individuals on the other hand.
- Follow a meal frequency and nutrient timing that you enjoy and can stick to.
Are you looking for a way to get lean and muscular without giving up on your life in the process? Then read this guide next!