Understanding Meal Frequency – I Know How Much to Eat, But When?
Should I eat more calories in fewer meals, or less calories more often? Should I skip breakfast, dinner? If I eat a snack, do I have to wait 30 minutes before I go swimming? If you ask a dozen different people about how frequently you should eat throughout the day, you will likely get at least a dozen different answers. A lot of weight (pun intended) is put into choosing how often to eat, and how much to eat at each meal. People often spend as much time planning the timing of their meals as they do the workout itself. But to answer these questions, we need to go back to our roots. Our bodies are designed to use food to expend energy, repair itself, and to adapt to the environment. And back in the day, when food required a little hunting and gathering, this meant eating whenever you were hungry. The scarcity of food, and the need to expend energy to obtain it, not to mention survive, justified eating whenever possible, and kept our ancestors from becoming slobs. Nowadays though, when 2,000 calories are obtainable in a meal ordered from the comfort of your favorite air conditioned vehicle, a little more restraint is necessary to limit the body’s resources relative to your personal energy expenditures.
Note that I said relative to YOUR body’s energy expenditures. Now I know a lot of people who want to have a body like Michael Phelps, and I would like to help them do that. But I am not going to run around telling people they should eat 12,000 calories per day (the calorie intake of Michael Phelps) which, if you have ever tried to eat that much, you might know requires eating huge meals constantly throughout the day. I wouldn’t give that advice unless… this particular individual finds themself training 8 hours per day in a swimming pool (and I mean more than just water aerobics) and hitting the gym in their free time.
So here is the question, should Michael Phelps be worried about spacing his meals, or skipping breakfast? The answer is plainly no. His body needs a certain amount of macro-nutrients (proteins, carbs, etc.) to sustain his activities. As long as he is getting all the nutrition he needs, he will be getting the most out of his workouts, repairing the strain on his body, and adapting to new techniques and demands that are put on his body. If he were to not get enough nutrients, he would have to worry about catabolic processes, and if he were to double his calorie intake, yes even Michael Phelps could get fat.
I know many of you are thinking that a comparison with an Olympic athlete is too extreme. You think that perhaps he has a genetic predisposition to shedding body fat. Questions about genetic predisposition and personal dietary specialists begin bubbling to the surface, but the reality of the situation is that you could take almost any competitive athlete and you will find the same results. Think of the offense of a football team, and compare a wide receiver to a lineman. Either one of them is expending more energy than you or I on a daily basis, but a wide receiver stays slim and a lineman stays hefty. Look at a picture of Dan Marino now without a shirt and compare it to him years ago. It is not the result of them spacing their meals with regard some arbitrary concept of time invented by humans much later than we began existing. It is a result of eating a quantity of food relative to the activity level of the individual.
If you need to eat smaller meals more frequently to be able to get all your protein, or to help avoid unhealthy snacking throughout the day, or if you need to eat larger meals less frequently to feel satisfied, then go for it. Don’t under-nourish your body, and remember to balance the amount of food you eat with your activity level. Take control of your body.