Meal Frequency & Health

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With intermittent fasting on the rise once again, the question of meal frequency is rearing it’s myth-covered head.

How often should I be eating?

How many meals should I eat each day?

Won’t more meals speed up my metabolism?

Should I be eating breakfast?

Is it bad to eat before bed?

Shouldn’t I consume at least 20 grams of protein every two hours?

Is it ok to go more than 2-3 hours without food?

First off, yes. Your body, as a rule of thumb, can go about two weeks without food. So, yes, it’s okay to go hungry for a few hours.

Meal frequency is a hot topic in the fitness & nutrition industry right now. And along with it comes meal timing, so we’ll cover both today.

After reading through this article, you’ll have the knowledge and tools to design your own meal schedule, allowing you to work efficiently, train intensely, sleep better, and live an awesome life in general.

A quick summary of intermittent fasting

If you haven’t heard of it, intermittent fasting (IF) is where you basically skip meals on purpose. It’s also sometimes called time-restricted feeding. For instance, you’ll fast throughout the night and until noon the next day, consuming all of your food between noon and 8 pm (which is your new bedtime).

Intermittent fasting has been shown to improve triglycerides, blood glucose, and growth hormone levels, among other things. Essentially, it makes you a superhuman with low body fat.

Other benefits include reduced insulin resistance (a key to muscle gain and fat loss), better cellular repair, improve mental clarity during the fast, and reduced global inflammation.

It’s also a good way to become more familiar with your own feelings of hunger and fullness.

During the fast, you consume absolutely zero calories. You may still have coffee, water, or sugar-free gum. But you shouldn’t be downing two double-mocha frappuccinos.

You can workout any time, fasted or non-fasted, depending on your own personal preferences. And you should still maintain the same calorie intake as you would without fasting (which should align with your goals).

Now let’s bust some myths

So now that I’ve given you some background on intermittent fasting, let’s cover some popular myths regarding meal timing and frequency. First up, should you fast?

So the answer here is that you technically already do. You fast every night when you get those 7-9 hours of sleep (which I’m sure you’re getting).

The second thing here is that fasting is totally a personal preference. Should you try it? Sure, give it a shot. See what it’s like. Get better acquainted with your own hunger cues. It might work well for you if you already skip breakfast most days (because you’re technically already doing it), but intermittent fasting is an advanced technique.

There’s no body of evidence out there saying that IF is more beneficial than any other healthy diet when it comes to ridding our body of disease and helping us lose weight. And if you don’t already have your basics covered (i.e. water, unrefined foods, plants, etc), intermittent fasting won’t work.

The main point here is that IF is not meant as a way to skip a meal and then eat whatever you want later in the day. I would argue that intermittent fasting can, at times, be more difficult than a traditional diet because your own hunger might cause a few bad decisions in your feeding window.

Okay, next question: should I eat breakfast?

Again, this is a matter of personal preference. It’s not a problem to skip breakfast because you aren’t hungry if you’re making smart choices later in the morning/afternoon when you finally are hungry.

It is a problem to skip the meal because you’re “too busy,” “running late,” or “don’t have time in the morning.” If you’re grabbing Egg McMuffins on the way to work and then vending machine snacks at 10 am, you might want to think about prioritizing your health a bit and eating something healthy at home.

Eating breakfast isn’t a necessity, but it can help curb hunger at your next meal and throughout the day. There are plenty of healthy diets that include breakfast as a mainstay so don’t be convinced by any “diet gurus” that breakfast is what’s building that extra layer of fluff around your midsection.

Next question: is it okay to eat right before bed?

Again, this is a matter of personal preference. It also depends on what you’re eating. I wouldn’t advise eating a large meal or chugging a 2 liter of Mountain Dew as these could interfere with sleep.

However, there are many successful athletes that eat before bed, usually in the form of a small snack containing mostly protein & fat. Having a small snack before bed (I’ve even seen people do it in the middle of the night) can aid in recovery and muscle growth.

Additionally, eating something small (especially if you’re always hungry before bed) can help curb your appetite and actually help you sleep better.

Okay, just one more: does eating more frequently speed up my metabolism?

No.

Moving more throughout the day speeds up your metabolism.

It takes the same amount of energy to digest 2,000 calories. It doesn’t matter if you eat those calories as ten, small 200-calorie snacks or two, large 1,000 calories meals.

So then how many meals should I eat each day, Josh!?

Alright, alright, no need to yell.

Seems a little confusing, right? If you can eat basically whenever you want and fasting is optional, when should you eat? And how often?

The answer is simple: you should eat when you’re hungry and don’t eat when you aren’t. 

Your hunger exists on a continuum. See below:

See, listening to your own hunger cues means avoiding the extreme ends of the spectrum. And you should do this virtually all the time. 99.9% of the time.

The middle half of the spectrum is where you should spend the majority of your time – let’s call it 80-90%. Allow yourself to feel hungry, eat until satisfied or full, rinse and repeat.

Lastly, the “starving” and “stuffed’ stations are permissible, but only once in a while. This is your 10%.

And this is where blanket meal frequency statements miss the target. Dedicating yourself to intermittent fasting can be good for your health, but only if you’re still capable of making good decisions once you reach the left side of this scale. The same goes for skipping breakfast, avoiding food before bed, skipping meals, and eating too little in general.

Hunger is a natural part of being human and should be expected and embraced. Hunger is an even more natural part of diets that are specifically designed for fat loss.

But extreme hunger causes extreme reactions. You should eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and don’t eat when you aren’t.

If you still want to give intermittent fasting a go, feel free. Here’s Martin Berkhan’s site so you can do it correctly.

But remember that above all, eating the right foods in the correct amounts will take you 80% of the way. Just like exercising, it doesn’t matter when you do it, only that you are consistent with it.

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