Meal-Frequency Matters

Why How Often You Eat Matters Every Bit as Much as What

If you're like most of us, you've probably always heard that eating several small meals throughout the day is the best way to keep blood-sugar levels even, energy high, and metabolism strong. Lately, however, there has been an increasing body of research suggesting the exact opposite: that fewer meals each day and more time between them can improve performance, fat-loss, and over-all health.

How can two approaches so radically different both be advocated and which really works? In today's article, we'll look at the biology behind meal-frequency -- what actually happens when we eat more or less-often and exactly why it dramatically impacts our ability to both store energy and to grow. By the end, you'll understand where the misconceptions come from, what eating-patterns your body was really designed for, and how to tailor that to your unique goals and lifestyle.

Why "When" Matters as Much as "What"

    We all know health and performance depend on both our food-choices and volume: good choices mean better energy, mental focus, and over-all wellness, while proper volume is essential for adequate energy without excess weight-gain. But many of us don't realize that the issue doesn't stop there -- in fact, the exact same foods can have dramatically different impact depending on when we eat them.

    This can be hard to understand at first -- after all, isn't it really just a matter of "energy in/energy out?" We've been told this for so long, it can be difficult to move past, but the fact is that, even with identical calories and nutrients, one way of eating can hamper performance, slow growth, increase fat-storage, and even reduce cognitive function, while another can improve blood-sugar levels, optimize strength and endurance, and even help ward off cognitive decline. To understand why the exact same food can lead to dramatically different results, we need to know more about the two master hormones that are profoundly impacted by meal-frequency: insulin and Human Growth Hormone, or HGH. By better understanding how these two work -- especially together -- you'll understand why the exact same food can promote or undermine our health depending on the frequency of our meals....

    The Basics of Two Master Hormones

    Like all hormones, insulin and HGH both play a variety of roles in our bodies, but the basics will be enough to understand why meal-timing powerfully impacts both performance and health.

    The primary role of insulin is to regulate blood-sugar levels and store energy for future activity -- healthy insulin function means better energy, better performance, and better mental focus. HGH, by contrast, helps regulate growth and repair throughout the body -- so healthy HGH levels means not only greater strength but even quicker recovery and improved healing. In simplified form, insulin keeps our blood-sugar balanced so we can function, both mentally and physically, and also stores excess energy for future use, while HGH tells our bodies: "Now is the time to use that energy in order to repair and grow."

    Obviously, we need both of these: we can't repair without energy, and all the energy in the world doesn't do us any good if we aren't repairing the natural wear-and-tear that comes from life, let alone from intense training. In essence, insulin and HGH can be seen as complementary and synergistic hormones, working together for the optimal health of the body.

    Healthy Insulin Function

    • Improved Blood-Sugar Regulation
    • Increased Energy & Performance
    • Better Focus
    • Improved Mood
    • Enhanced Stress-Management
    • Reduced Fat-Storage

    Poor Insulin Function

    • Poor Blood-Sugar Regulation
    • Lower Energy
    • Reduced Focus
    • Increased Depression & Anxiety
    • Poor Stress-Management
    • Increased Fat-Storage

    Healthy HGH Function

    • Improved Muscle-Growth
    • Quicker Recovery
    • Improved Immune Function
    • Quicker Tissue-Repair/Reduced Risk of Injury
    • Better Mood
    • Increased Sexual Vitality

    Poor HGH Function

    • Slow Muscle-Growth
    • Delayed Recovery
    • Greater Susceptibility to Illness
    • Increased Risk of Injury
    • Depression
    • Decreased Sexual Ener

    So What Does Meal-Frequency Have to Do With Insulin & HGH?

    Here's where things get interesting -- we just need to understand two more aspects of these key hormones.

    The first is that healthy blood-sugar is absolutely critical for our bodies -- if it gets too high or too low, it can induce coma or even death. For this reason, insulin function takes priority over HGH -- in other words, whenever insulin is circulating in the body, it's allowed to govern things while HGH takes a back-seat.

    The second is that insulin and HGH work through a shared chemical pathway -- again, the elements are complex, but the basics are simple: HGH works through several subsequent hormones, the primary one being IGF-1, or "Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1." As the name suggests, IGF-1 is structured very much like insulin and uses the same chemical receptor sites. This means that, no matter how much HGH we produce, IGF-1 can only do its job if insulin doesn't block those sites first.

    Importantly, this takes us back to our first fact that blood-sugar regulation takes priority. Putting the two together, you can perhaps already start to see the very real link between meal-frequency and repair:

    1. Insulin & HGH use the same pathway -- that is, only one can "impact" the body at any given time.
    2. But insulin gets "priority treatment" -- that is, if both are being released in our bodies, insulin will be allowed to fulfill its function while HGH is essentially "locked out" of doing its job.
    3. This means that the more frequently we eat, the less chance HGH gets to trigger growth, repair, and its other crucial functions.

    The very real and significant impact of this can be best understood through a simple analogy. Imagine you own a small business, every day taking in raw materials and building product. Now imagine your storage areas are so small they can only be accessed by one person at a time -- that is, if a receiving clerk is storing material, your construction team can't access the material to build new product and vice-versa. Finally, imagine that receiving always takes priority -- in other words, whenever there's a shipment, the receiving team gets access to storage, regardless of the current needs of construction.

    Taking us back to meal-frequency, ask yourself: "What would happen if I got shipments all the time?" Obviously, the receiving department would love this, as small shipments spread throughout the day are far easier to handle. But what about production? Clearly, they would never be able to access the materials they need, and as a result, production would drop and eventually your business would fail -- you'd be well-stocked with raw-material, but you'd steadily lose the ability to generate marketable product.

    The same thing happens in our bodies: when meals are too frequent, our bodies are constantly generating insulin, storing energy but blocking HGH from doing the repair work it is designed to do. As a result, our bodies begin to break down rather than building up, unable to use all valuable energy we have stored.

    So Why Are We Told "More-Frequent Is Better?"

    Naturally, at this point, you may find yourself wondering where we got the idea that eating small meals throughout the day is better. There are actually several valid reasons for this belief, but the problem is they tend to only work for a short period or from a limited perspective. Again, if you think of our analogy, you can see the rationale: from the perspective of the receiving manager, small, frequent shipments are ideal -- they're easy to handle and easy to store. The same goes for smaller, more-frequent meals -- they're great for our digestive system and, at least at the start, better for blood-sugar regulation.

    But blood-sugar management is just one piece of the health-picture, just like receiving is just one part of manufacturing -- we need to think about how all the pieces work together, as we've discussed with HGH suppression. The other issue is "short-term" versus "long-term:" smaller meals place less demand on insulin release and uptake, but, over time, constant insulin expression becomes taxing for the entire body.

    Again, our analogy can make this more clear: if we do spread our shipments throughout the day, at the start, our receiving clerks probably appreciate the lighter, smaller shipments. But if shipments keep coming around the clock, eventually they will become fatigued and start to work less efficiently. As a result, their boss (i.e., insulin) will have to micro-manage even more, trying hard to get them to do their jobs, and the exhausted workers will become less and less responsive, which is basically what happens when our bodies become insulin-resistant, as we'll discuss in our next session.

    Further Health-Complication of Excess Insulin-Production: The Basics of Energy Storage & The Negative Impact of Excess Insulin

    The negative impact of excess insulin on HGH is actually just the tip of the "frequent-meal iceberg" -- in fact, frequent meals can cause two very serious problems, the first involving energy-storage, and the second and more far-reaching being decreased sensitivity to insulin or "insulin-resistance."

    Starting with energy, your body has three ways it can store fuel -- whether for cognitive function, physical activity, or repair/growth -- and these are in the liver, in muscle-tissue, and in fat cells.

    • The liver is easiest for your body to access but relatively limited, making it great for sudden activity of brief duration.
    • Your muscles come next -- almost as easy as the liver for your body to access, with the added benefit that their storage capacity can be increased through training. In fact, this is basically what being "well-trained" means -- you increase both the ability of your muscles to store energy as well as the "size of storage."
    • Finally, there we can store energy in our fat-cells -- much harder for your body to access, but virtually unlimited.

    Because liver-storage is limited, and because it is very labor-intensive to extract energy from our fat-cells, our muscles are the ideal place to store excess fuel. Proper training actually impacts this through an "upward spiral:" when we exercise regularly, we deplete our muscle-stores, freeing up space for future energy-storage, and we also trigger HGH-release, resulting in muscle-growth and the chance for even more storage.

    But, if we eat frequently, we actually cause a "downward spiral:" insulin production blocks HGH, which means our muscles can't repair, let alone grow. This slows recovery and reduces both our ability and our desire for future activity, which means the limited-storage of our muscles quickly fills and excess calories need to be stored as fat. As a result, we get less and less benefit from our exercise, as well as less and less energy from our food, storing it as fat we in turn have an even harder time accessing, and down the spiral goes....

    Excess Meal Frequency Means:

    • Excess insulin production
    • Suppressed HGH function
    • Reduced Energy
    • Slow growth/poor recovery
    • Decreased mood
    • Poor Cognitive Function
    • Increased Fat Storage

    The Health-Impact of Excess Insulin-Production #2: The Dangerous Impact of Decreased Insulin-Sensitivity

    All of this might sound bad enough, but it actually gets worse: as we alluded to in our analogy above, when insulin is produced frequently, our bodies start to become insulin-resistant -- needing to produce increasingly higher levels of insulin to get blood-sugar to a healthy range. Obviously, this means even less HGH function and can also lead to its own dangerous downward spiral: the more resistant we become, the more over-produce insulin to protect ourselves from the dangers of excess blood-sugar. As a result, we start to "over-regulate" and our blood-sugar plummets, making it hard to act or even think. And what do we do in our blood-sugar is low? Naturally, we eat -- preferably something high in sugar that will get into our blood-stream quickly -- in turn, furthering our problem.

    The good news is that insulin-sensitivity can be improved, but the two things that improve it are physical activity and increased muscle-mass, both of which are difficult if insulin is being over-produced. This means that, if we want to reverse the spiral, we need to begin by reducing insulin over-expression, and the way we do that is by stopping our tendency to constantly eat.

    "The Upward Spiral:" How Proper Meal-Frequency Can Optimize Both Insulin & HGH

    So now that you have a better understanding of the link between meal-frequency, insulin, and HGH, we come to the practical question: "What is the optimal spacing between meals for each hormone to do its job?" Obviously, this can vary depending on activity-level, diet, age, and even stress-management, but there are a few guidelines that can give us a good starting-point from which we can find the approach that is optimal for us.

    The first thing to know is that HGH is released in pulses throughout the day, roughly once every 3 hours. The level of each pulse is influenced by the time of day (highest during sleep and in the first hours of the morning, lowest in the afternoon and evening) as well as training, nutrition, and lifestyle (high-intensity training has an exponentially greater impact on HGH than moderate activity, while stress-management and sleep are every bit as crucial to HGH production as exercise and diet), but regardless of size of the pulse, its impact, as we've discussed, can be completely thwarted by excess insulin.

    Since insulin can remain in our system for as much as a few hours, that means each meal prospectively blocks the impact of one or more pulses of HGH, and, with approximately ten pulses a day, that means roughly a 10-20% reduction of HGH per meal. Now imagine eating three meals and three snacks over the course of 14 hours, from breakfast at 6 am to a before-bed snack at 8 pm -- that means fully half of our HGH pulses are being blocked each day.

    Of course, the impact is not as cut-and-dry as that, but it's a good approximation -- again, this is why constant "grazing" means diminished growth and repair, along with potential long-term impact on over-all health. So what is the lesson we want to carry away from this?

    1. Shift to fewer meals per day & longer windows between meals -- Most find that 2-3 meals limited to a briefer period (approximately 10-4 hours) each day allows for both ample nourishment as well as strong HGH expression. That might mean three meals 4-hours apart, or two meals 6-hours apart, while some even do well with one meal a day -- the key is to find what works for you.
    2. Time your meals to optimize the natural hormonal cycles of your body -- Again, peak HGH release takes place during sleep and into the morning, while HGH is lowest afternoon and evening, so time your meals accordingly. By finishing your last meal at least 90 minutes before bed and postponing your first meal as long as possible, you can be sure to avoid blocking the vast majority of your hard-earned HGH production.

    "The Upward Spiral:" How Proper Meal-Frequency Can Optimize Both Insulin & HGH

    So now that you have a better understanding of the link between meal-frequency, insulin, and HGH, we come to the practical question: "What is the optimal spacing between meals for each hormone to do its job?" Obviously, this can vary depending on activity-level, diet, age, and even stress-management, but there are a few guidelines that can give us a good starting-point from which we can find the approach that is optimal for us.

    The first thing to know is that HGH is released in pulses throughout the day, roughly once every 3 hours. The level of each pulse is influenced by the time of day (highest during sleep and in the first hours of the morning, lowest in the afternoon and evening) as well as training, nutrition, and lifestyle (high-intensity training has an exponentially greater impact on HGH than moderate activity, while stress-management and sleep are every bit as crucial to HGH production as exercise and diet), but regardless of size of the pulse, its impact, as we've discussed, can be completely thwarted by excess insulin.

    Since insulin can remain in our system for as much as a few hours, that means each meal prospectively blocks the impact of one or more pulses of HGH, and, with approximately ten pulses a day, that means roughly a 10-20% reduction of HGH per meal. Now imagine eating three meals and three snacks over the course of 14 hours, from breakfast at 6 am to a before-bed snack at 8 pm -- that means fully half of our HGH pulses are being blocked each day.

    Of course, the impact is not as cut-and-dry as that, but it's a good approximation -- again, this is why constant "grazing" means diminished growth and repair, along with potential long-term impact on over-all health. So what is the lesson we want to carry away from this?

    1. Shift to fewer meals per day & longer windows between meals -- Most find that 2-3 meals limited to a briefer period (approximately 10-4 hours) each day allows for both ample nourishment as well as strong HGH expression. That might mean three meals 4-hours apart, or two meals 6-hours apart, while some even do well with one meal a day -- the key is to find what works for you.
    2. Time your meals to optimize the natural hormonal cycles of your body -- Again, peak HGH release takes place during sleep and into the morning, while HGH is lowest afternoon and evening, so time your meals accordingly. By finishing your last meal at least 90 minutes before bed and postponing your first meal as long as possible, you can be sure to avoid blocking the vast majority of your hard-earned HGH production.

    Additional Benefits of Optimal Meal-Frequency

    By now, you probably have a strong sense of why fewer meals each day have such a powerful health-impact, but there are a few additional factors it might be helpful to know in terms of meal-frequency and its impact on both physical and mental health.

    First, when we go more than approximately 10 hours without eating, our body begins a process known as "autophagy" in which damaged or defective cells are broken down so their components can be used by other cells. Autophagy is actually a doubly-beneficial process for our bodies, helping to eliminate cells that are at best a "non-contributing" load that can easily turn harmful while also freeing material that can be used to support the work of healthy cells, and is a natural part of the "house-keeping" our bodies do. Frequent meals mean a reduction of autophagy and increased build-up of unhealthy cells, while longer breaks between meals result in a healthier, more efficient system.

    A second benefit of longer periods between meals is fat metabolism. As we mentioned earlier, fat is hard for our bodies to break down -- it's a relatively complex process with some less-than-ideal metabolic byproducts -- so when energy is available via blood, liver, or muscles, they are our bodies' preferred sources. However, when these sources are reduced and insulin is low, our bodies naturally switch over to this alternative source, which means that longer periods between meals actually burns more stored fat. Even more importantly, when engaged in regularly, increased breaks between meals actually cause our bodies to produce more of the enzymes that break down fat and enhance this energetic pathway, making it easier for us to burn stored fat for fuel throughout the day.

    The third major benefit of less-frequent meals is on the cognitive front. Research has shown that constant insulin-expressionactually triggers neurological degeneration, contributing to premature cognitive decline. By contrast, when we are without food for more than approximately 10 hours, our livers generate what are known as ketone bodies. A natural byproduct of fatty-acid metabolism, ketone bodies have been found to play an unexpected role in mental health, literally "taxing" neurons in way that makes them more resilient and healthy. The exact mechanics of this are complex, but for our purposes a simple understanding will suffice: just like the "challenge" of lifting a weight or jogging makes our muscles and hearts healthier, likewise ketone bodieschallenge our neurons and synapses in a way that makes them more "robust" and strong.

    Putting It All Together...

    There are actually many other benefits to proper meal spacing, plus of course many different ways we can implement the basic idea, but by now you should have a good idea of just what it can offer you and how you might begin to put it into practice in your own life. In future articles, we'll talk more about specific approaches, but our hope is this has given you a good starting-point for diving in to this powerful approach.

    In summary, by reducing the number of meals we eat each day and increasing the time between meals, we can increase insulin-sensitivity, enhance HGH function, improve energy and mood, increase immune-function and speed recovery, support better fat-burning, and even improve cognitive function -- all with the exact same diet. So give it a try -- like many of us, you may find that it offers unprecedented new levels of both performance and health....