Get Your Protein, Veggies & Fruits and Get Them Regularly: High(er) Meal Frequency (6 à Day) + High(er) Protein Diet Support Weight & Fat Loss on a Diet

There are more than six ways to get six-pack abs - trust me.
I guess, I am going to provoke a quarrel by claiming there may be advantages to eating more frequently. After all, saying anything that could be interpreted as criticism of intermittent fasting is about as unpopular as talking about the benefits of carbohydrates, these days. And I am guilty of doing both on a regular basis.

The optimal diet strategy? Trying what works best for you!

The latest reason for me to question that there is only one way to get ripped (and that this includes eating just one meal per day), is the publication of a study by Paul J. Arciero et al. who found that "Increased Protein Intake and Meal Frequency Reduces Abdominal Fat During Energy Balance and Energy Deficit" (Arciero. 2013)

To assess the effects of different dietary regimen, the scientists from the Skidmore College in  Saratoga Springs, the Florida State University in Tallahassee, the Colorado State University in Fort Collins and the Army Institute of Public Health. Recruited 30 individuals through newspaper advertisements and flyers.
A previous study by Dr. Bray showed: When all is said and done calories count | read more
"Participants were nonsmoking, healthy men and women with no known cardiovascular or metabolic diseases as assessed by a medical history and a comprehensive medical examination by their physicians.

All participants were inactive (<30 min, 2d/wk or structured physical activity), overweight or obese (BMI >30.36 +/- 5.9 kg/m²)), middle aged (46 years), and weight stable (62 kg) for at least 6 months prior to beginning the study." (Arciero. 2013)
The participants were then randomly assigned to a dietary interventions in the course of which they consumed their habitual diets for 5 days (this was meant to get a baseline reading), a balanced diet for 28 days and a diet with a negative energy balance (-25%) for another 28 days (see Figure 1 for macros).
"All nutrition plans for each group (TD3, HP3, and HP6) during BAL and NEG were similar in fat (20-25% total energy) and low in glycemic index (<50). It is important to highlight that the composition of all diets emphasized unprocessed, unrefined, high nutrient-density whole foods and were thus high in fruits, vegetables, unsaturated plant oils, and lean sources of protein.

Thermogenesis anyone? Suggested read: "MCT + Chili Make a Pretty HOT Pair: 50% Increase in Diet Induced Thermogenesis in Well-Controlled Human Trial" | read more
A 7-day menu plan was provided to all participants for the entire 62-day intervention. These meal plans included seven choices for each breakfast, lunch, and dinner (and mini-meals for HP6) that were modified for each person’s specific caloric needs and designed by a registered dietician (RD) using the Food Processor SQL Edition (version 10.7.0, ESHA Research, Salem,OR, 2010) using common foods [...] It is important to highlight that each individual meal consumed during the 28-day BAL and NEG phases was designed to deliver the same macronutrient distribution pattern as the overallnutritional plan for each group" (Arciero. 2013)
Irrespective of whether the energy content was balanced or negative (see Figure 1) the TD3 & HP3 diets contained only three meals. On the other hand, the HP6 diet with its six meals per day stands for the almost forgotten "eat more frequent meals to lose more fat" paradigm of the late 20th century.
Figure 1: Macronutrient composition (in g; left) and glycemic index + total calories (right) of the test diets (Arciero. 2013)
And if you look at the data in Figure 2 you will certainly agree that it may be worth asking, whether this set in stone paradigm of old-school bodybuilding diets was rightfully forgotten over the course of the past decade. At least for the guys and gals in the study at hand it did after all work quite nicely to consume a high(er) protein intake and high(er) meal frequency:
Figure 2: Body fat composition expressed relative control diet (left); Kcal expenditure / kcal intake (right; Arciero. 2013)
Ok, it's not like you could not get along with fewer meals, but the effects on body fat and muscle were significant and meal-frequency specific:
So can you? I mean, can you really get rid of hunger pangs by upping the protein content of your meals? Yes, you can, but as usual, there is a string attached, here. One of the infamous "on the other hands": "The Satiating Truth About Proteins and Why High Protein and Low Amounts of Low GI Carbs Don't Mix Well" | read more
"Given daily energy intake and expenditure were tightly controlled throughout the 62-day intervention and were similar among groups, differences in body composition may be due to changes in macronutrient distribution (%) of the diets and not to changes in total caloric intake or energy expenditure, as others have documented previously (Bray. 2012; Larsen 2010). Close attention was given to ensure that all participants consumed similar high-quality foods and only the ratio of macronutrients and frequency of meals consumed among the three groups differed. This novel finding highlights the benefits of HP6 in the absence of change in total macronutrient (kcal) intake on ABF loss and may have profound influence on public health policy regarding nutrient intake recommendations for adults."
Before you freak out and start curing, let me remind you that the results of the study at hand do not imply that there are no other ways to improve your body composition.

Improved diet-quality alone cuts body fat and increases postprandial thermogenesis

Moreover, my personal highlight of the study is not the effect of the meal frequency or the high protein content. My personal highlight is that the improvement in diet quality, which was brought about by the switch from the regular (control) diet (actually I was implied to write dirt instead of "diet) to a balanced diet that was high in fruits, vegetables, and lean sources of protein. That alone lead to a significant fat loss even in the "balanced" calorie intake period.

It was also this change in diet quality and not the praised increase in protein intake that brought about a significant increase in the thermogenic response to a meal by 30% - with the highest postprandial thermogenesis being observed in the TD3 group - the group with the lower protein intake (393kcal/90min, 353kcal/90min and 348kcal/90min in the TD3, HP3 and HP6 arm of the study)!
Forget about the myth that only what you eat in the vicinity of your workout is going to help you build muscle - "Opening the "Anabolic Barn Door" With the Key of Exercise and Nutrition Science!" | read more
Bottom line: Eating a healthy diet is key. High protein (35% of total energy intake) and increased meal frequenccy can increase body recomposition effects of your diet, but neither works via increased thermogenesis. Intermittent fasting is not the only way of getting lean, but the study at hand does not show us that it is an inferior way either. Why? Well, we do not have the respective IF group with only 2 meals in a small time-window to "prove" that.

So assuming that you can control yourself, even if you are eating 24/7 (6 meals in 12-16h thats eating every 2-3h), give it a try - there is reason people have been swearing by the "6-meals-a-day approach" for decades, even if that's not a prevention in postprandial thermogenesis that renders it more effective (the latter fell to 260-270kcal in all three groups, when the total energy intake was restricted), but simply a more pronounced cumulative caloric deficit (see Figure 2, right).

In conjunction with the high(er) protein intake you can still eat a rather high amount of protein with each meal and could thus probably yield slight muscle sparing effects. Apropos: There is something else that's muscle sparing: Resistance training. This as well as other effects of exercise should be reason enough to be very careful about projecting the results of the study at hand 1:1 onto yourself. And I am saying that despite the fact that the superiority of a six-meal nutritional strategy in athletes (esp. when they are cutting) was actually one of the few more or less convincing findings of the (imho) most comprehensive paper that has been published on this issue up to now, the "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Meal Frequency" (LaBounty. 2011)

  • Arciero PJ, Ormsbee MJ, Gentile CL, Nindl BC, Brestoff JR, Ruby M. Increased protein intake and meal frequency reduces abdominal fat during energy balance and energy deficit. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2013 Jul;21(7):1357-66.
  • Bray GA, Smith SR, de Jonge L, et al. Effect of dietary protein content on weight gain, energy expenditure, and body composition during overeating: a randomized controlled trial.JAMA. 2012;307:47-55
  • La Bounty PM, Campbell BI, Wilson J, Galvan E, Berardi J, Kleiner SM, Kreider RB, Stout JR, Ziegenfuss T, Spano M, Smith A, Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: meal frequency. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2011 Mar 16;8:4.
  • Larsen TM, Dalskov SM, van Baak M, et al. Diets with high or low protein content and glycemic index for weight-loss maintenance. N Engl J Med. 2010;363: 2102-2113
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