Meal Frequency, and its Affects Upon Musculature

Diogenes struck the father when the son swore.”

Robert Burton

The following question comes by way of TTP reader Bret Brams (any relation to Johannes, I wonder?), a teacher from Belgium.  Bret tells me that his interests revolve around anything related to the fields of nutrition, sports science, psychology and biology.   Sounds like a pre-requisite hanging out around these parts, huh?  And when he’s not ladling knowledge over dry but eager minds, Bret busies himself with competitive powerlifting and sprinting.  Bret also wanted me to extend, for him, a hearty welcome to any serious trainees who’d like to join him in his fully-equipped home gym in Belgium; all are welcome to come down and train with him, or just hang out and discuss any and all aspects of physical culture.  If you’re in the neighborhood, look him up; if not, you can can find Bret here, at his Facebook page.

On to Bret’s question:

I’ve read your thoughts and habits on meal frequency and such. How much do you think this matters in muscle preservation? Slowly I’m weaning myself off the bodybuilding idea that you have to eat every few hours to retain muscle, however, it’s still somewhat foreign to me.

I’ve gone from 8 to 6 to 5 to 4 meals a day over the years, now eating fully paleo. Reliance on hunger has become something unnatural to me, as I’ve always disciplined myself to eat every few hours(for the typical reasons … digestion, etc.). I haven’t gotten around to fasting yet, but I’m trying. It seems I’m still hungry(for the good stuff, but still)and can easily eat the entire day, even on paleo foods.

Can you perhaps address what you noticed in terms of muscle loss/gain and fat loss?
I assume that initially one will lose some muscle(due to loss of muscle glycogen) but will afterwards gain it back when his insulin sensitivity rises and the glycogen sparing effects of the fasting improve.

Less is more?

Sincerely yours,


My Reply follows.  Bret will notice that I’ve embellished quite a bit from the answer I originally sent back his way; the advantage of a little extra thought and a little extra time:

I went through the same wrestle with the meal frequency issue, and truthfully, only recently do I think I’ve fully got a handle on it.  A few tears back I’d thought that, having completed a few months of full-on Paleo lifestyle, that I’d fully transitioned to the Paleo way — but the problem of meal frequency (and of still being “hungry” numerous times throughout the day) persisted.  Eventually, though, I reached the point of being able to listen — really listen — to my body, eating only when truly hungry. I do think that it takes a while, however, to get to that point; especially coming out of the old, ingrained, “6-times-a-day” habit.  And this is largely the result of two separate (but wickedly co-conspiring) phenomena —  social conditioning and carbohydrate addiction. Of course one must learn to navigate the practical issue of living Paleo in a modern environment as well, and this will be different for each individual due to their living/working circumstance.  For instance, I’ve had to learn how to square randomness in eating and working out with a mostly regimented and always extended-hours working life.  My solution(s) are not necessarily easy to implement or to follow — and they’re certainly not perfect — but they do represent the best I can do under my given, restricted, situation.  And that, I believe, is all that we can be asked to do.

But specifically, let’s look at the “big two” in way of obstacles to reaching meal frequency un-attachment — and forgive me if I begin to sound a little too Zen about this whole thing, but really, “un-attachment” and/or “dissociation” are key in finding resolution, here.  Are you truly hungry?  Then eat.  Eat what?  Well, I never go by hard and fast rules, but I try to consume more fat calories than protein, and certainly more animal protein calories than carbohydrate.  The rest takes care of itself.  How many times a day do I eat?  Well, the average is probably 3 — but I fast often (mostly in the 20 – 24-hour range, but sometimes as long as 36 – 48 hours), and many days I only eat once or twice.  In fact the only constant to my eating pattern is that there is no constant.  And as an overlay to this template is the random template of my workouts, with one having very little influence (if at all) on the other.  This was one aspect of the “social conditioning” that was so hard for me to break.  I’ve come now to believe, though, that the whole business (conventional notion) of “refueling” — timing windows and such as that — is, in a word, bogus.  And I am being quite generous here.  I also believe that the multiple-times-per-day eating regimens so popular now amongst bodybuilders and athletes is flawed — even if those meals are Paleo-like — because they act to limit the body’s need to and/or ability to utilize stored fat.  So this is more of a mental construct then, that must be dismantled and overcome.  My n=1 experience is that my musculature has taken on a definite degree of increased hardness due, I’m sure, by the shedding of  some intramuscular fat and a lack (due to a low carbohydrate environment) of water retention.  I’ve also experienced a reduction in subcutaneous fat and water retention as well.  And, to top it all off, I’ve banked a net gain in overall bodyweight (note the previously mentioned reduction in fat and water) over the last few years.   So, unless my bones and/or organs have massed-up, I’d have to say I’ve gained a decent amount of lean muscle tissue.  Hardly the “wasting-away” outcome from this manner of eating prophesied by the 6x/day “experts”.

The other half of the co-conspiring dynamic duo then, is carbohydrate addiction.  I almost hate to use the term, because it implies a certain level of sensationalism, but it is addiction we’re dealing with here, nothing less.  Now the degree of addiction may be more for some than for others, but addiction it is, none the less.  I’ve discussed the phenomena previously, here and here.  The short answer is, though, one is compelled to eat frequently for similar reasons as to why a smoker reaches for another cigarette — a combination of social conditioning and physical dependence.  Both phenomena must be overcome if one is to truly break the meal frequency cycle.

In health,


PS —  (10/23/09, 1550 EDT) I failed to include this post from Richard over at Free the Animal.  Make sure to check out the comments as well — lots of great information contained therein.  Carbohydrate addiction — and specifically, sugar and HFCS addiction — is no joke.

11 responses to “Meal Frequency, and its Affects Upon Musculature

  1. Hi there, this does not relate to the abov post at all, but in one of your tweets you mentioned that you are ure that metabolic typing can be used to fine-tune a paleo diet.
    Is there anything coming up the within the next time regarding that subject? Because I’m really interested in what exactly you mean and until now have no idea of what to think of metabolic typing.

    • I’m still juggling the idea in my head as of now. I know that there is (and, most importantly, was) a wide variety of what is considered normal among indigenous societies vis-a-vis protein, fat and carbohydrate consumption, and in regard to specific foodstuff tolerances. To what extent this has been washed out via evolution — i.e., how much each of us as an individual has approached some theoretical Paleo baseline, I do not know. I do, however, think that it’s a legitimate realm of prusuit.

  2. Keith,

    I think I have posted this here before but it should be repeated; I asked this question 5 (!) years ago on a message board and here was the response:

    ” Overeating glucose generally leads to a large volume of 5-HT (serotonin) synthesis in the brain as a result of elevated insulin and plasma tryptophan levels (this is the primary culprit behind “carb-hangover,” coupled with a rapid spike & dip in blood sugar). Nicotine is actually the most common drug that modulates serotonin activity (MDMA is another), so I would actually say the pharmacology of nicotine is slightly more analagous to the actual fed state. Cocaine is in some ways as well, but it doesn’t really affect 5-HT activity significantly (at least not that I’m aware of).

    Cocaine primarily modulates the reward-mechanisms through DA activity. It spikes massive DA releases while simultaneously inhibiting DA reuptake pumps which filter it out of active circulation so that all that dopamine just kind of “hangs out” and pleasurably stimulates receptors for severl hours. Heavy carbohydrate (glucose) feeding will also stimulate DA release via PC12, so there is some merit to the “food & coke” conjoining. I still tend to think nicotine is the more complete “fed state” mimicker; blow is just a shitload more powerful because the initial DA stimulation is exponentially greater than what you’d get from a cigarette for example.”

    So yes, nicotine and carbs. It’s also why nicotine gum is something used when cutting: appetite suppression and fed state mimicry.


    • Yes, and on the flip side people who stop smoking (or come off a drug addition) generally report substantial weight gain; that monkey will be satiated one way or the other. Which brings us back around to food, eating proper relative proportions of fat, CHO (complex) and protein, and possibly supplementing (at least in the initial stages of jones busting) with high-dose amino acids, ala Julia Ross’s methods.

  3. Keith, thank you for your in-depth reply to my question!

    More and more, intermittent fasting and listening to your body makes sense.
    I always prided myself on the discipline it takes to eat every few hours, but never felt the “increased metabolic fire that burns more calories!!” that was often sold together with the premise. And I always ate a moderate carb diet, seldom eating a lot of carbs during the day and saving most for post-workout.(think John Berardi-guidelines – which I still feel are pretty effective – but perhaps more so after you’ve adapted to a paleo diet and you’re in ketosis)

    An update:

    Yesterday I had a 10-hour fast after breakfast during which I trained.
    It wasn’t completely voluntary, as I was feeling nauseous from a crappy breakfast(stale cheese + eggs + onions … the cheese did me in. Perhaps not having dairy for a long time had to do with it.). Not so much that I couldn’t go to work, but still enough to lose my appetite.
    Normally I would have pushed myself to eat under these circumstances(can’t miss a meal! I’ll lose muscle!), but I decided to go with the way my body suggested and didn’t eat until an hour after training later that day.
    I did not notice any odd side-effects, aside from the fact that I was a little bit dizzy at the beginning of my workout, but this improved throughout.

    I have lost a lot of “stubborn” fat while switching over the full paleo dieting and decreasing the meal frequency. Intermittent fasting looks good, especially now I’m very busy. I will keep on working on it, now first on non-training days, and eventually on training days every once in a while.

    By the way, it’s Bert, not Bret 😉

    • Oh and by the way – I do feel I need to increase my calories. I need to/want to gain some muscle mass back and the food intake I have right now apparently doesn’t cut it.(or does it … ?:-p)

      Can you perhaps comment on that in short?

      • Eat to satiation, of the correct foods and relative proportions, and muscle mass (assuming you’re working out correctly) will take care of itself. Force-feeding will only lead to bloat (in the short term), and intramuscular fat gain (in the long term). It’s intramuscular fat gain that most trainee’s mistake for lean muscle gains.

      • Another question about the IF, Keith.

        For now, this is my basic week’s “planning”. I put planning between quotation marks because I’m trying to be more flexible and not as obsessive as in the past about meal frequency and timing.

        Monday: 4 meals, eat from 7-8 AM until 8 PM
        Tuesday: Fast until about noon (16 hour fast), then 2-3 meals. Last meal at around 4-5 PM, fast until next day.(14 hours fast until next day)
        Wednesday: 4 meals, eat from 7-8 AM until 8 PM
        Thursday: Maybe fasted till noon, today not because I was hungry this morning.
        Friday: Same as Monday and Wednesday
        Saturday: Regular meals from morning
        Sunday: Fast until noon, last meal at 4-5pm.(14-16 hours, followed by another 14 hours until Monday)

        Too much, too little fasting? I’m interested. I used this planning now for one week.

        • I usually hit about 2 24-ish hour fasts per week — just when I feel like it. Eventually, you’ll get past that conditioned “alarm clock” in your mind that tells you you need to eat (when actually, you could have skipped that meal). You just have to be patient and let it evolve naturally. Another thing, too, is that you’ll soon come to appreciate the feeling of an “empty” stomach without the least little feeling of being hungry. It’s very liberating — and energizing as well.

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