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Feed Your Muscles

Eating frequent meals throughout the day is the best way to maximize muscle-building, period.

Feed Your Muscles

If you follow my meal plans for maximizing muscle growth, you know two things: (1) My diets have you eating protein every 2-3 hours, and (2) my diets work!

Recently, however, a few so-called nutrition "experts" have suggested that eating every few hours is NOT the best way to build muscle. They've actually suggested waiting 5-6 hours between meals! And get this, they have science to support their recommendations. This is based on research showing that if you consume a protein meal (or essential amino acids), it boosts muscle protein synthesis for only about two hours without another boost in protein synthesis coming for at least another six hours even when adequate amino acids are present.

Okay, so this theory is suggesting that if you consume a protein meal (let's say a protein shake), it will boost protein synthesis. If you then consume more protein (say, another protein shake) two hours later, there would be no additional boost in muscle protein synthesis. However, if you wait about six hours or longer to consume that second protein shake, you would get another big increase in muscle protein synthesis. So it makes sense that to maximize muscle growth, you should wait a good six hours between meals so that every meal you eat boosts muscle protein synthesis. Sounds solid, right?

No, not solid at all.

Granted, protein synthesis is very important. I'm not debating that. However, just because you have a boost in muscle protein synthesis does NOT mean you get an increase in muscle growth. Muscle growth is a balance between muscle protein synthesis (the build up of muscle protein) and muscle protein breakdown (the breaking down of muscle protein). To get an increase in muscle growth means that muscle protein synthesis must be greater than muscle protein breakdown. And guess what? Muscle protein breakdown is happening all the time. It's especially happening when you go several hours without providing your muscles a source of protein with all the essential amino acids.

What the aforementioned experts are missing by suggesting that you should wait up to six hours between meals is that, while protein synthesis may be maximized, so is muscle protein breakdown, which minimizes any gains you would get in muscle growth.

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that you can't build muscle eating every six hours. I'm just saying that you can't really maximize muscle growth this way. The best way to maximize muscle growth is to eat a high protein meal (at least 30-40 grams of protein, depending on the protein source) every 2-3 hours.

How do I know this? It's based on three things:

1) Watch a newborn eat and you'll see that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM eats every 2-3 hours. The first year of life is the most critical for rapidly gaining mass. And to ensure that this happens, we have evolved to eat every 2-3 hours. If it didn't work, infants would be eating every six hours or so and parents would be getting much more sleep during the first year of their child's life! It's not until later on in the child's life that we start imposing the three-meals-per-day schedule on them, which has more social significance than anything to do with fueling the body in the best way possible.

2) I've been prescribing this style of frequent eating for over two decades and have seen it work for thousands and thousands, if not millions, of men and women who were previously struggling to gain muscle mass. As soon as they step up their meal frequency they also step up their muscle mass and strength gains. Just with my Micro Muscle/Shortcut To Size program, which employs frequent meals eaten every 2-3 hours, I've received feedback from hundreds of thousands of men and women who have been able to build adequate muscle mass by following this diet and training program.

3) There is actually research, courtesy of a fairly recent study from Australia, suggesting that eating protein every three hours trumps eating it every six hours. And that's what I'll be focusing on in this article.

The Aussie researchers had subjects perform a leg workout and then fed them a total of 80 grams of whey protein over the next 12 hours in three different methods: (1) eight 10-gram doses of whey protein every 1.5 hours; (2) four 20-gram doses of whey every three hours; and (3) two 40-gram doses of whey every 6 hours.

They reported in a 2012 issue of the journal Nutrition & Metabolism that protein net balance, which is essentially muscle protein synthesis minus muscle protein breakdown, was significantly greater when they consumed the four 20-gram doses of whey every three hours as compared to the other two methods.

Greater protein net balance essentially means more muscle growth.

Jim's Take-Home Points:

There are a couple key points from this study to consider. The first has to do with protein amounts. The fact that the 10-gram doses of whey every 1.5 hours didn't lead to greater protein net balance than the 20-gram doses every three hours is more a message about protein quantity than frequency. Simpy put, you need to get an adequate dose of protein at each meal, and the minimum appears to be right around 20 grams.

The researchers didn't look at higher doses, but I would suggest (as I always have) shooting for 30-40 grams of protein per meal, depending on the source. Concentrated protein sources that are rich in BCAAs, such as whey and casein protein (both of which are present in Pro JYM), can be on the lower side of this range. But if we're talking about whole food sources like chicken or beef, which are a little lower in BCAAs, I would shoot for a good 40, 50 or even 60 grams of protein per meal based on your size (bigger guys go for 60 grams, smaller individuals 40).

The key is getting in adequate leucine at each meal, which is the real key for turning on muscle protein synthesis. There are some suggestions that you need close to 4-5 grams of leucine, depending on your size, to adequately kick-start muscle protein synthesis. While whey and casein, as well as other dairy products, will deliver that in about 30 grams worth of protein, most whole food sources will require 40+ grams of protein to hit that amount of leucine.

The second take-home message here is that you should not go any longer than three hours between meals to maximize muscle growth. Any longer than this appears to increase protein breakdown too much so that any major boost in protein synthesis you get is just making up for the breakdown and not maximizing the potential for muscle growth. This should help to shed more light on why I'm adamant about consuming a very slow-digesting protein before bed. When you sleep, you're going anywhere from 6-8 hours without a meal. So yes, muscle protein breakdown will likely be increased during this time.

A protein powder containing casein (Pro JYM) or other rich sources of casein such as cottage cheese or Greek yogurt will provide your body a slow, steady source of essential amino acids for close to seven hours. It's as if you're eating protein while you sleep! This will help to minimize any muscle protein breakdown during the night.

And I always recommend getting in some fast-digesting whey protein as soon as you wake. (Again, Pro JYM would work here because it contains whey.) This way, you immediately kick-start muscle protein synthesis and stop the protein breakdown to get you in an anabolic state at the start of the day.

 

References:

Bohe J, Low JF, Wolfe RR, Rennie MJ. Latency and duration of stimulation of human muscle protein synthesis during continuous infusion of amino acids. J Physiol. 2001 Apr 15;532(Pt 2):575-9.

Moore, D. R., et al. Daytime pattern of post-exercise protein intake affects whole-body protein turnover in resistance-trained males. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2012 Oct 16;9(1):91.


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