It is often explained that bodybuilders eat many small meals a day to have a regular intake of calories and macronutrients. I wonder if this is really good for the digestive system to have a full digestion process running all the time and if there is an optimal amount of meals ?
The short answer is, no it's not strictly better, but...
While eating 6 meals over 3 meals is technically not a requirement, it's all about the nutritional value you actually consume. What I mean under that:
It is all about the amount of micros and macros that you actually consume within the 3 meals as opposed to the proposed 6. However, with an average human, who recently started regularly working out and is living off 3 meals, chances are, he/she is usually under-eating in terms of calories and other nutrients, so you need to start eating more, that however proposes an issue to most people, even thought they won't initially realize.
Why it's recommended to eat 6 meals as opposed to 3:
- You will not be used, to eating that much food. If you simply increase portion size, you will often feel sick and even nauseous from eating a meal, that is often twice the size you would regularly eat prior. On the other hand, if you eat 6 meals a day, your portion sizes will be relatively small, making it much easier to digest
- Your body will crave more food, given you recently started working out, your body will need more fuel. If you even accidentally under-eat with 3 meals, you will often crave more food - not large enough for another full meal, just something the right size - oh right... unhealthy snacks!!
- Being new to dieting, you often will miscalculate portion sizes, micros and macros early on. Nothing to be ashamed of, it happens, issue is, if you increase portion sizes rather than eat more often, this can cause spikes in your blood sugar levels given you've over-eaten a certain condiment.
- Energy levels - given your body has more constant intake throughout the day, it gets better at distributing the consumed energy throughout the day, rather than having to store and save what you hoard from the 3 meals. In result, you will feel more energized and potentially even happier throughout the day.
- Motivation - this last point is subjective - but at least personally speaking, when I used to wing it and eat 3 meals, I often could keep up with my diet plan and daily calory intake, however after a month or two, I had trouble keeping up and slowly but surely gave up on diet plan altogether. At least personally speaking, I find it much easier to stick to a diet if you have strict eating times (for example I even set alarms) - this way I always make sure to eat the right portion, without craving food throughout the day and can easily stick to my goals.
That being said, if you feel like you are disciplined enough to eat 3 meals a day and successfully stick to your diet plan, then there's no reason for 6 meals. But to a novice athlete, it usually helps a lot to divide your meals into a more realistic/achievable plan.
Also one last note, 6 is not some magical optimal number.
It can be 5, it can be 7. depending on how often you have time to eat or even feel like eating. In the end, it's all about what you consume (nutritional quality) and in which quantity (calories, protein, carbs, etc.)!
Meal timing is generally going to be important for sport competitors, but not so much for everyone else. For everyone else, only daily values matter. Individuals will find that certain eating patterns are more useful for them in reaching their goals.
Eating six times a day isn’t problematic for the digestive system, nor is eating once a day. Your food choices have the potential to cause problems though (for example too much sugar, spice, volume, or something else all at once). Something else to keep in mind is how strenuous activity impacts a full stomach, most people don’t perform well on a full stomach as it usually takes an hour or so to settle.
I believe there are two main reasons in favour of more regular, smaller meals:
- There's less chance that at any point you are starving your body of nutrients that it needs for growth and recovery.
For example, suppose you ate just one meal in the morning containing all your daily calories. Even if the meal has a good balance of macronutrients (protein, fats, carbs), your body can only hold onto this for a few hours, before converting it to fat or excreting it. If you don't train until the evening, you won't feel the energy benefits of that meal when you train and it will be hard to get the most from your workout.
- Eating small, healthy meals regularly will keep you feeling full and helps to avoid snacking on bad foods.
I know if I skip my mid-morning protein shake, by 11 am I'm craving food and might resort to crisps or chocolate as a snack. This unbalances my macros and makes my diet less healthy. Of course, with willpower you can avoid snacking, but if your body tells you its hungry, then better to provide it with some small amount of good calories than nothing at all.