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How often should your really be eating

For many of us, busy days, work lunches, dinners, social occasions and late nights mean it can be difficult to follow a set eating schedule.

I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage that you should be eating every 3 hrs to speed up your metabolism?!

But how can you do that in the office? What about if you work shifts.

But most importantly, does it really matter?

The premise behind regular eating is that when you eat, your body requires kcals to digest and absorb the food (thermic effect of eating). However, whether you eat your 2000kcals (for arguments sake) over 6 meals or 3 meals your the difference in this thermic effect will be negligible.

The forest plot below highlights how whether you eat less frequently (left of the line) or more frequently (right of the line) there is very little difference in weight loss. So providing your kcals (how much you eat) are matched it doesn’t really matter how often you eat.

(Taken from 'Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis' .Schoenfeld, Aragon and Krieger 2015).

So don’t worry about it?

Well not quite no. There is some rationale to eating fairly frequently.

Sparing muscle mass

Whatever your goal, maintaining muscle is VERY important, especially considering the heavy demmands of competitive fitness. To help do this, athletes need to ensure they’re not in a kcal deficit and maintain a positive protein balance during the day or basically eat enough protein.

Protein acts as both a trigger for growth (switches on mTOR) and as a substrate (the actual building blocks) for new muscle tissue, where both amount and timing are important for size and strength. Considering the volume and intensity of many of the workouts, timing and quantity is particularly important to elicit the greatest adaptation.

This remodelling of new tissue, or muscle protein synthesis (MPS) tends to wain after around 3-4hrs (Moore et al., 2013), making it important to have frequent protein feedings throughout the day where a lack of either can lead to muscle protein breakdown (MPB).

Apologies for the jargon but bear with me….

To keep a positive protein balance (muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown) you should aim to have around 0.25-0.3g per kg of body weight (around 15-25g) interspersed throughout the day and a similar dose (0.3g/kg BW) after exercise. A larger feeding before bed (0.6g/kg BW) also helps reduce any protein breakdown and increases MPS whilst your asleep (Nutrition and Athletic performance, 2015. Currell, 2016). Especially important for recovery!

What about around training

You may have heard about the ‘anabolic window’ or the 2 hours post workout where you HAVE to get in your protein otherwise your workout is wasted….

Not true.

Research suggests that protein intake immediately post exercise is not as important as once thought (Aragon and Schoenfed, 2013). The sensitivity of the muscle lasts for up to 24hrs (Currell, 2015) so providing you have an adequate amount of protein over the course of the day, it should not make much of a difference. It’s still safe to assume though that to support growth and recovery you should consume protein when you can after training, but don’t feel the need to run to the changing room to grab your shake immediately after your workout!

But before worrying about this, remember your overall intake and types of food massively outweighs the importance of meal frequency. So finding a plan to suit your schedule is going to be more important. Once you begin to find some traction with your diet then you should consider increasing protein feedings.


  1. Eat the right amount of food

  2. Eat the right types of food

  3. Only then start worrying about timing :)

Need more help? Then make sure you join our FREE online nutrition course::


  1. Anon, (2017). [online] Available at: [Accessed 14 Mar. 2017].

  2. Aragon, A. and Schoenfeld, B. (2013). Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), p.5.

  3. Atherton, P. and Smith, K. (2012). Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise. The Journal of Physiology, 590(5), pp.1049-1057.

  4. Campbell, B., Kreider, R., Ziegenfuss, T., La Bounty, P., Roberts, M., Burke, D., Landis, J., Lopez, H. and Antonio, J. (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4(1), p.8.

  5. Currell, K. (2016). Performance Nutrition. 1st ed. Crowood.

  6. Jon Schoenfeld, B., Albert Aragon, A. and Krieger, J. (2015). Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis. Nutrition Reviews, 73(2), pp.69-82

  7. Moore, D., Robinson, M., Fry, J., Tang, J., Glover, E., Wilkinson, S., Prior, T., Tarnopolsky, M. and Phillips, S. (2008). Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 89(1), pp.161-168.

  8. Phillips, S. (2012). Dietary protein requirements and adaptive advantages in athletes. British Journal of Nutrition, 108(S2), pp.S158-S167.

  9. Phillips, S., Chevalier, S. and Leidy, H. (2016). Protein “requirements” beyond the RDA: implications for optimizing health 1. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 41(5), pp.565-572.

  10. Stellingwerff, T. (2005). Decreased PDH activation and glycogenolysis during exercise following fat adaptation with carbohydrate restoration. AJP: Endocrinology and Metabolism, 290(2), pp.E380-E388.

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