How often should we eat? Opinion is divided on meal frequency, so you might assume it doesn’t matter but the question is worth considering. 

Three meals a day was once the standard but many in the muscle game are convinced that if you don’t eat every two hours your body will cannibalise itself and your biceps will drop off. However sometimes the things you worry most about don’t become the problems you once anticipated. When I was a kid quicksand was a major concern but has so far not posed the danger I felt it would.

In reality there is no difference in the impact 3 meals a day or 6. So do whichever you prefer and find practical.

Eating little and often takes planning. Not everyone has time to graze throughout the day and there is little appeal in spending Sundays prepping 400 little plastic containers of food to last the week. If your daily intake is low, the portions can be so small you are doing the culinary equivalent of trying to split atoms and every meal will leave you unsatisfied.

Eating less frequently brings its own problems. Fewer meals may mean less effort, but longer gaps between meals means hunger may drive you off the rails. Conversely, a high daily calorie requirement squeezed into three meals may make you feel uncomfortably bloated.

Your metabolism, fat oxidation and muscle preservation are independent of meal frequency and respond proportionately to the size of the meal. Therefore small, regular meals or big infrequent ones will have the same effect.

You should be reassured that your preferred meal frequency is going to be just fine – one less thing to worry about. However, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the kitchen, debate has now moved on to the time between meals.

Intermittent fasting

There are regional differences in what counts as tea, lunch, supper dinner and so on but universally the non-eating parts of the day didn’t have a name. Now they are referred to as the fast or more verbosely as the periods of restricted caloriest. Technically it’s true we fast between every meal (which is how break-fast got its name and why you can only delay iot not skip it). But referring to a such a short window in which you don’t eat as ‘intermittent’ seems needlessly extravagant. 

Variations include:

  1. i.18/6: an 18 hour fast followed by a 6 hour ‘eating’ window;
  2. ii.5/2: fasting or minimising calorie intake for 24 hours twice a week; and
  3. iii.Alternate day fasting

Like meal frequency, they don’t seem to have any benefit beyond preference and convenience. 

The fasted state is said by some to stimulate a variety of positive health outcomes (exceeding those seen from calorie restriction), but their biochemical justifications are beyond the scope of this article. Just be aware of the risk of extrapolating from transitory responses into permanent, life-changing effects.

However, it is certainly convenient. If you’re used to eating 5-6 times a day this will free up your time considerably. 

It gets you out the habit of snacking and you get to feel a little hungry now and then. Superficially this seems like a drawback, but it is its most valuable lesson. More often than not the sensation passes. You quickly realise that hunger is just a feeling and not one that needs to be avoided or immediately acted upon.

Before you ask…

…Yes, you can drink black coffee

….And yes, your muscles will be quite safe

What’s the catch?

Sadly, most the usual advice still applies:

How much you eat and what you eat are still by far the biggest influences. So, go easy on the processed food, eat lots of veg, have a varied diet and so on. Just because you’ve heard this stuff before doesn’t make it wrong.

If you plan to lose weight on this diet you still need to create a calorie deficit. Most the benefits are attributed to the lower calorie intake, overeating will negate all this however long the fast was.

This diet is not suitable for those who need to eat regularly, e.g. Type I diabetics, pregnant or breastfeeding women, children, the elderly, anyone suffering from an eating disorder, anyone who can’t resist binging at the first chance of re-feeding or those who are horrible people to be around when they get hungry.

I think the biggest benefit of intermittent fasting idea is improved life quality as it allows a more flexible approach to your meal times. This is all wasted if you sit there timing your fast and eating windows to the second. The whole point is you loosen up a bit and your life isn’t dictated by the next time you’re due to eat. 

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