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,

Bert

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,

Keith

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.