Is it true that eating small, regular meals is the right way to build muscle – or can you just stick to three meals a day? Nutritionist Christine Bailey has the answer

There is much debate about nutrient timing and meal frequency around exercise. Generally speaking, when you eat your food is nowhere near as important as ensuring you hit your energy needs and macronutrients over the whole day. Your muscles are not going to dwindle if you skip a meal (e.g. follow intermittent fasting) or don’t eat every two-three hours. So long as you eat enough protein every day and of course combine it with the right training, you won’t lose muscle.

That said, if you’re serious about building muscle and want to get the most out of your workouts, there may be some benefit in increasing your meal frequency, particularly when it comes to protein. For example, there’s a fair amount of evidence that eating protein  before and after your workouts can help you build muscle and strength over longer periods of time.

Small and often

Most of the studies on meal frequency focus on eating protein regularly through the day. One study, for example, found that consuming four servings of 20g protein split through the day was more effective than two servings of a higher amount of protein split through the day. Similarly, another study highlighted that protein synthesis was higher in people eating three meals plus snacks than those who ate just three large meals a day.

One of the reasons more frequent meals with protein may be helpful for muscle building, is that our bodies can only absorb a certain amount of protein each hour. This means consuming more protein in the same meal may not result in any greater gains. One study using whey protein found that 20 grams of protein was almost equally effective at elevating protein synthesis rates as 40 grams.

In addition, there is also a limit to how long protein synthesis rates remain elevated when you eat protein. This is roughly three hours after eating. So if we know that 20-30g protein is what is needed to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, and that muscle protein synthesis lasts for no longer than around three hours, then actually eating 30g protein every three to four hours may result in greater gains than eating fewer, larger amounts of protein spread over longer periods.

You still of course need to make sure that you are consuming sufficient protein for your needs over the whole day. Of course eating this way is not practical for everyone so remember, it is more important you hit your overall energy needs and macronutrients, particularly protein daily.