How often should bodybuilders eat protein meals?

March 29th, 2008 by Paul Johnson

As bodybuilders we always told dogmatically to eat 5-7 protein rich meals spread throughout the day. This leads to some bodybuilders freaking out if they miss a protein meal thinking they are losing muscle mass. Most bodybuilders eat 6 protein meals a day, which I’ll coin here, the “6 meal theory”.

Why do bodybuilders need 6 protein meals a day?

We have been told that the reason we need many protein meals throughout the day is to keep a steady supply in our bloodstream. They believe that if you aren’t having a steady supply, you are shortchanging your muscle building once the levels drop. We are also told that we can only digest about 30 to 50 grams of protein in one meal and therefore we have to spread it out over many meals if you want to get your total daily intake. If you take 100 grams over 3 meals, in theory that would mean a lot of protein doesn't get absorbed.

There is no substantial evidence that directly supports the 6 protein meal theory, comparing for example, 3 higher protein meals to 6 smaller protein meals spread out. Perhaps in the future, there will be but I couldn't find any at the moment. Instead of using direct research evidence for the "6 meal theory", bodybuilders have used research supporting the fact that protein can't be digested all at once and the belief that bodybuilders require more than a gram of protein per lb of bodyweight for maximum muscle gains. Notice I say "belief", more on that next.

Some research that is cited commonly for the 6 meal theory argument, points to protein being digested into the 30-50 gram per meal range. Although those studies are a bit weak and have nothing to do with studying bodybuilder's diets. And what I'm about to say might sound blasphemous to the bodybuilding community, but there is actually little to no research supporting the idea that protein intake over .8 grams / per pound leads to better muscle gains. That is not to say that increasing protein intake isn't a good idea, it's just there is no substantial research on it that it helps in building more muscle. I believe if a bodybuilder increased his calories, without increasing the ratio of protein along with it during bulking, he would just get fat from the excess carbs. So at the very least, increasing protein beyond .8 to 1 gram per pound of bodyweight is important for lean muscle gains. And other than for immediately after a workout for 24-36 hours where protein synthesis is hightened, I don't see any evidence that letting amino acid levels in your blood drop a few times throughout the day, would automatically lead to shortchanging your muscle gains.

To make things confusing, there is another bodybuilding diet theory called Protein Pulse Feeding. This theory believes that sporadic larger protein meals throughout the day, called "pulses", actually are better than a steady supply of smaller protein meals. I've found about 4 studies, one done on rats the others done on women and elderly dealing with this protein feed diet. In 3 of the 4 it showed increases in protein synthesis significantly after the protein pulse feed diets. Perhaps this is because like how your body tends to retain water when it doesn't get a steady supply throughout the day, you increase protein synthesis to try and compensate for these sproradic protein pulse feeds. With that said, the research was a bit on the short term(the longest was 21 days) and I think could have possibly shown different results, if it continued on. I think as the body adjusted to the new protein diet it may have shown different results. The studies also weren't done on athletic or bodybuilders, so not exactly the ideal study groups for our purpose. After a grueling weight training workout where protein synthesis is already raised for 24-36 hours, I don't see how protein pulse feeding could be effective and might even be a detriment to muscle gains.

Which way is right then?

Unfortunately, the more you look into research on different aspects of protein dieting, the more confusing it gets. It doesn't help that there is few research studies out there and most isn't done on athletic or bodybuilder types. Fortunately, we don't really need to sit there and try to figure this all out from research. Bodybuilders have been eating large amounts of protein, broken up into 6 or more meals for decades now. While there may be another way that doesn't require as much protein or as many meals to get the same muscle building effect, we don't know. But we do know what works for the pro bodybuilders. Until more research comes out proving otherwise, we should continue to follow the pro bodybuilders in how we structure our diets.