Australian writer and composer Tim Minchin delivered a graduation address at The University of Western Australia last year that became a YouTube phenomenon. He didn’t veil a political agenda or speak in code to cohorts of a social ideology. To the contrary, he extolled nine unifying lessons that create a better life and a better world. And we all know that more muscle means a better life and a better world. Minchin’s fifth point was, “Be hard on your opinions.… We must think critically and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out on to the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.”
Introducing the topic of meal spacing with such philosophical thought may be the greatest transgression in the history of fitness journalism, but I couldn’t resist—I’m giving a lecture in two hours titled, “Metabolic Myths and Mysteries: Why All the Experts Are Wrong, How the Government and Health Science Agencies Have Made Women Fat, and How You Can Stimulate Your Metabolism to Superhuman Levels.” Maybe I’m trying to expunge the cynicism of that tag line with Minchin’s lyrical mastery. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I’ll read four Dickinson poems and eat a salad tonight.
We’re currently between waves of meal-spacing theories—practically a new epoch of human existence, I know, but hear me out. Intermittent fasting is threatening the grazing, or six-meals-per-day, dogma that has held us captive since Body for Life made Bill Phillips a wealthy man. And it should—but it may pull us to the opposite extreme, and that’s Minchin’s warning. We like polarity. Pick your expert and become a disciple. Right vs. wrong. Us vs. them.
Before we started needing a study to validate every move we make, your mom probably told you to eat just when you’re hungry. What about the old three-meals-a-day concept? Guess what? We have new studies that back up Mom. Your metabolism won’t plummet, you may lose bodyfat even faster, and you won’t lose muscle.
It’s logical that eating smaller meals can help prevent your body from storing fat, and greater meal frequency does stimulate the metabolism. That said, the advantages of intermittent fasting—taking more time between meals to tap into bodyfat reserves and using larger meals to increase satiety—are just as reasonable. Studies show that both approaches work if they call for suitable calorie intake. Try breaking your food into varied meal formats. Experiment by dividing the same number of calories into different percentages of the macronutrients—protein, carbs and fat. A little trip outside of your own village can give you the chance to find out what works best for you. Let’s take a walk.
Consider why you’re interested in meal spacing. I’m betting it has to do with growth. All the work we put in at the gym is the stimulus for growth potential, but, as we all know, muscle tissue grows at rest. It’s the other 23 hours of the day that matter, so bring on the food! Every meal is a defibrillation paddle to the chest of muscle growth in the emergency room. Every meal is sacred to physique sculptors and competitors.
Others may be interested in the metabolic boost provided by the meal—keep the calories churning and burning! What about those who want both? Sure, we can eat all day and keep anabolism high, but bodyfat comes along as the high price tag. Keeping bodyfat low and still providing the food needed for progress and recovery is a tightrope act.
For those reasons meal timing is of great interest to researchers in both the weight-loss and exercise science industries. If eating every three hours is the current cultural gold standard, we can work backward and forward through different contexts and variables. What affects nutrient uptake speed and duration? I’ll list the top three factors:
• Food amount—caloric and volumetric
• Complexity—food type and combinations
• Metabolic rate—genetic and situational
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