Thou shalt eat every 3 hours
Thou shalt minimize starchy carbohydrate consumption
Sound familiar? These two nutritional rules have been preached by coaches and physique athletes practically since bodybuilding was born. Heck, I preach them all the time.
Before you freak out that everything you’ve ever been told about nutrition is a lie, let me preface. You can certainly build a very effective diet plan around these rules. Many a bodybuilder and figure competitor have won shows eating extremely low-carb diets with frequent feedings.
Here’s the thing though: more and more, smart coaches are finding out that you don’t necessarily have to eat this way to get lean. Turns out that a lot of the reasons people used to justify this classic style of eating turned out to be broscience – not really backed up the the research. Let’s break it down.
Eat Every Three Hours
Eating frequently has traditionally be supposed to help keep insulin levels stable, which results in less fat storage and fewer cravings. Similarly, frequent eating is also purported to “stoke the metabolic fire” to keep you burning more calories all day.
Turns out there really isn’t a measurable metabolic difference between eating 6 meals a day and eating fewer. Some people like eating a higher number of smaller meals; others prefer a few big meals. Stick with what works best for your lifestyle and preferences. As long as you’re eating the right things and the right amount, the number of meals you use isn’t all that important.
In a related movement, more and more folks are jumping on the “intermittent fasting,” a style of eating which leaves larger than normal periods of time with no eating. Some of the more popular schemes are:
- 16 hours of fasting followed by an 8 hour eating window (Leangains) – Generally with 3 meals eaten between 1 and 9 PM.
- 24 hour fast (Eat, Stop, Eat)
- 20 hour fast (Warrior Diet)
Proponents of IF point to the ease with which it creates a caloric deficit (duh, you aren’t eating) as well as the fact that sporadic fasting creates a nice boost in growth hormone, which is great for extra fat loss. It’s still newly popular, so the jury is out, but lots of people are finding success with IF, which only puts more doubt on the “eat every three hours” commandment.
For more info on IF, check out these great resources:
- Leangains (the grandfather of IF)
- IF 101 and IF 201 by John Romaniello
- Precision Nutrition on IF (extremely detailed)
Minimize Starchy Carbohydrate Consumption
Let’s face it, the “eat every three hours” thing is basically dead after that beating. This one isn’t going to be that clean cut.
For a long time, most folks in the industry went by the “Good Calories, Bad Calories” insulin model described by Gary Taubes in his book of that name. I wrote an article on the basic concept here.
The idea, put extremely simply, is that eating starchy (potatoes, grains) or sugary carbs raised your insulin levels and insulin is a fat storage hormone, so it made you fat. Cut the carbs, cut the fatness. We call this the “Insulin Hypothesis.” Turns out it’s not that simple. There are a ton of metabolic pathways involved in body fat regulation, and simply tacking the blame for fatness on one hormone was a little premature.
Now, before you start loading up on pizza and pasta, I will point out that regardless of the pathways involved, a lot of people have gotten really lean using extremely low carb diets (remember Stephanie’s competition?). One alternate theory being proposed to the insulin hypothesis is the the “Food Reward Hypothesis,” which postulates that the “reward value” of your diet has more to do with body fatness than the specific macronutrient composition (amount of carbs, for instance).
What makes for high reward value, you ask? Research points to the following factors:
- Meatiness (glutamate)
- The absence of bitterness
- Certain textures (e.g., soft or liquid calories, crunchy foods)
- Certain aromas (e.g., esters found in many fruits)
- Calorie density (“heavy” food)
Interestingly, the food reward hypothesis has room in it for the effectiveness of low carb diets. Removing the starchy and sugary carbs from your diet removes or lessens 5 of those factors!
For more info on the food reward hypothesis, check out the great resources at Whole Health Source:
- The Case for the Food Reward Hypothesis of Obesity, Part I and Part 2
- Pretty much everything else he’s ever written over there
There’s still a lot of research to be done in the area, so right now I still recommend basically the same foods I always have to those looking to get lean. Lots of meat, veggies, and eggs. It fits both the hypotheses!
Is your mind blown?
If you’ve been in the fitness world for any amount of time, you might be feeling a little confused right now. That’s OK. Me too. The human body is a complicated thing, so it’s no surprise that the answers aren’t as straightforward as we though. Stick to your meat and veggies (that always works) – but feel free to mess with your meal frequency. Find the schedule that works best for you.