Meal Frequency Freedom: A Flexible Diet Structure Journey

Nevertheless, to learn these principles indoors, to study all the minor details and to forget the Way of the actuality, will likely be of little use at all. – Miyamoto Musashi

Take no thought of who is right or wrong or who is better than. Be not for or against…1. Research your own experience. 2. Absorb what is useful. 3. Reject what is useless. 4. Add what is specifically your own. — Bruce Lee

Way back in March, I put up a post about how being flexible with your meal frequency patterns (eating 5-6 small meals/snacks like in a fitness spread vs. the traditional 3 meals a day vs. intermittent fasting protocols, etc.), and how using whatever plan works well for YOU given your specific situation, can help make the fat loss and physique transformation process a hell of a lot easier to adhere to on a day-to-day basis.

This, in turn, gives you a good shot at settling into a sustainable lifestyle approach that helps you live lean year-round vs. constantly being “On” or “Off”, alternating between hardcore dieting phases where you are suffering to reach some short-term goal, and then burning out, bingeing, rebounding, and yo-yo’ing, etc.

Forced discipline is finite. Good, yet reasonable habits can help you stay on track indefinitely. So don’t stay tied to fitness dogma if you know it doesn’t work for you. And don’t immediately dismiss alternative methods if they’ve been proven to work, and there is at least some science to support the specific strategies.

Here’s that first post in case you missed it: On Meal Frequency Flexibility & Sustainable Fat Loss Strategies

At the end of it, I promised a follow-up post regarding my own personal experimentation with different meal frequency patterns, and the relatively similar results I got regardless of the style. That’s what this post is all about.

Sorry for the delay. What can I say? Sometimes those little things called life, business duties, and a long ass St. Patrick’s Day hangover gets in the way…

Meal Frequency Flexibility & Freedom Review

First, lets review the main points that we’ve covered so far regarding diet structure flexibility and freedom. We’ll try to do that efficiently by just firing off a few bullets:

  • There is a definitive hierarchy of importance when it comes to achieving higher-level physique goals.
  • Consistently hitting targeted diet numbers (the right calories, and amounts and ratios of macronutrients – protein, carbs, dietary fat) is the most important step.
  • Emphasizing good food choices, or your ratio of quality food to crap, is the next most important step (and is #1 when it comes to the health aspects of your diet, but does also effect the adherence to targeted numbers by improving nutrient density and satiety).
  • Everything else is way down the hierarchy of importance when it comes to the pure physiological aspects of a fat-slashing diet.
  • How does meal frequency and food distribution (starving on lettuce leaves at night vs. eating a satiating dinner) fit into this pyramid? It’s about improving the practicality aspects of your diet.
  • In other words, I believe it’s about making sticking to the more important steps – targeted numbers and optimal food choices – as easy as possible. You should use whatever works best for you.
  • Science seems to support that flexible stance.
  • In a meta-analysis of the most relevant meal frequency research studies, the awesome researchers Brad Schoenfeld, Alan Aragon, and James Krieger came to the following practical conclusion: Moreover, the small difference in magnitude of effect between frequencies suggests that any potential benefits, if they exist at all, have limited practical significance. Given that adherence is of primary concern with respect to nutritional prescription, the number of daily meals consumed should come down to personal choice if one’s goal is to improve body composition.– Schoenfeld, et al. 2015. Effects of meal frequency on weight loss and body composition: a meta analysis. http://nutritionreviews.oxfordjournals.org/content/73/2/69

On the Importance of Practical Experience

I guess our own biases subconsciously surface when it comes to the coaches and approaches we gravitate towards. Because for me, I personally can’t follow the advice of someone who doesn’t have at least some kind of practical experience with the strategies he or she speaks of. The dude or diva doesn’t have to be elite, but they at least need to be an active participate in da game.

I don’t care how much theory or science someone can spit. Real world results are what matter most when you are trying to actually get shit done, not just pontificating on a podcast. So if a strategy doesn’t show some promise in game situations, its meaningless to me.

On an intellectual level, I know I should be able to get over that bias towards practical experience. Data is data. But on an emotional level, I just can’t seem to do it.

Now don’t misunderstand. That’s not to say you should follow the advice from gym rats just because they look a certain way. Drugs and genetics often play a huge factor. And just because someone looks great does not mean they have the knowledge, coaching skills, or relevant strategies necessary to help someone with average genetics achieve results.

I’ve had conversations with many a ripped physique peeps that you can tell in two minutes “don’t know their elbow from their asshole” as they say, and are in great shape probably despite their approach, not because of it.

So ideally, if you are really into this physique game, I believe you should take the time to pull from both the research and the practical experience of knowledgeable athletes and coaches, in order to give yourself an informed starting point. If you have shitty genetics like I do (skinny-fat), you actually have no other choice. Both gym myths and shit that just looks good in data tables and power point presentations will likely just leave you spinning your physique transformation wheels.

But once you do have some decent strategies based on both science and practical experience, you must take some personal accountability and test, assess, adjust, and refine based on your own specific progress and feedback. Don’t be dogmatically tied to anything. But don’t completely ignore anything either. You gotta use whatever weapons help you win.

Sorry, I guess this post is veering off into a big picture view of the physique transformation process vs. just a specific strategy.

So back to this meal frequency flexibility thing. The last post and the above summary covered the research I’ve seen on the topic from the resources I trust. But today, I want to tell you about my own practical experience with playing around with different diet structures.

This post may seem like total vanity/self-serving on the surface. But I promise it has a slightly more noble intent — I’m putting it up in hopes that it gives you some confidence to try out different diet structure approaches, and ultimately find the one that works well for you. Why do I believe it can play a part?

Well, despite all of the science that was out there on meal frequency flexibility, I admit I was so stuck in bodybuilding dogma and tradition that I wouldn’t have tried a switch to any alternative diet structure approach if it weren’t for dudes like Martin Berkhan and Ori Hofmekler.

Remember, my bias is to follow athletes, coaches, and writers that have practical experience. Not only were these guys presenting the science behind their stances, they were showing it actually worked from a practical standpoint with the great shape they were in, and getting other people into.

My Personal Meal Frequency Journey

So in the spirit of placing some value on practical experience, I want to share with you my own meal frequency journey over the last 6 years or so. I would never advise someone to do something I haven’t done myself. That’s not my style. How can you truly know all of the benefits and pitfalls of a path if you haven’t personally walked it?

A lot changed over those years, but a lot stayed the same, especially at the top of the hierarchy of importance. And my results solidified my stance that this hierarchy of importance does actually exist.

And please keep the following things in mind…

  • This is just what I was doing given my personal goals and circumstances.
  • I’m not arguing for anything as the best way, or the only way.
  • My goal with this post is simply to share my own personal experience and results over the last 6-years, in hopes that you can sift through it and maybe find a few nuggets of gold that you think might work well for you. Different people might find different nuggets, and what looks like a nugget to some might just look like dirt to others.
  • Put please, my friend, you have to realize you must get dirty and do some of that digging yourself. Just paying a guru for his advice, or reading a bunch of articles and research, or trolling around on internet forums, and then NOT taking action on anything, will get you nowhere. Sometimes a person’s questions can only be answered by that person himself, by taking action and seeing if some shit works, and if not, refining and adjusting from there.

At least that’s what I had to do.  So without further ado, here is what I was doing…

1. My Personal Diet Numbers

Given what I was doing in the fitness game over the last 6 years, I pretty much needed to stay in shape year-round (sort of more of a fitness model or professional gigolo named Deuce Bigalow’s approach vs. a bodybuilder with on-seasons and off-seasons). Actually, that very fact was the motivation to attempt to find a more sustainable structure and approach.

From a numbers perspective, I didn’t do the bulking phase/cutting phase combination during that time. My numbers generally fell within the following ranges, with more subtle shifts up or down based on the goal:

  • Protein: 125-175g
  • Carbs: 150-350g
  • Fats: 35-65g

2. My Specific Food Choices

I dig an Island-Style Diet. Its sort of a higher starch whole foods approach, a combination of food choices from the traditional Japanese, Okinawan, Kitavan, and Hawaiian Diets, etc. In practical terms, the foundational foods of my diet looked like this:

  • Animal proteins (fish, poultry, meat, whole eggs)
  • Whole fruit
  • Root vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro)
  • White rice
  • Some non-starchy vegetables
  • A little bourbon or sake on da weekends

Some type of combination of the above food choices made up most of my baseline meals, portions were adjusted to fit the numbers, and then I had a couple of cheat feasts a week with whatever I wanted.

3. My Training Approach

I’ve always believed the most efficient approach to physique transformation is to use your diet to take care of the majority of your fat loss, and then dedicating most of your formal training sessions towards one thing — building lean muscle.

As such, although the details changed, the basic foundation of my training program during the 6-year stretch was strength training 3-4 days a week with basic exercises and hypertrophy parameters.

I did no formal cardio during that time other than some outdoor walking, randomly training in Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art) once in a while (usually after watching a good action movie = yes, I’m still a frickin’ child, and believe I might hit the big screen as bad guy #7 one day), and occasionally cutting up a dance floor (I got the moves like Jagger).

Now for the real fun and flexible part: the diet structure set-up changed a lot during that 6-year stretch, and I got pretty good physique results on each protocol regardless.

2009 – The Traditional Bodybuilding Spread

First, I’m not one of these alternative meal frequency dudes who bash the traditional bodybuilding approach as ineffective. I want to be perfectly clear right now so there is no confusion. Basic fitness spreads (5-6 small, relatively equal calorie meals) absolutely is a highly effective approach. I used such plans myself from the time I started training, to my first show in 2004, to pretty much all the way up until about 2009, where I competed in another natural bodybuilding competition.

NPC Natural Bodybuilding Shows
NPC Max Muscle Naturals
Musclemania America
Musclemania America & World Championships

It’s just that traditional bodybuilding spreads are not always ideal from a practicality standpoint, at least outside of the demographic of fitness professionals, and in terms of talking about finding a long-term, sustainable lifestyle solution.

I had my fair share of yo-yo’ing up and down during that time, strict OCD competition diets vs. Baby Sumo hitting up buffet lines on someone else’s dime, etc.

Nate Miyaki Before
Halfway into an offseason (180lbs). My highest weight ended up being 25lbs heavier than in the above photo. At 205lbs, I thought I was getting huge, but I was really just getting fat.

And more importantly, traditional fitness spreads sure as hell are not the ONLY way you can get the physique transformation job done, as many gym rats proclaim.

2010-2011 – The Traditional 3 + Feast, Samurai Set-Up

After 2009, I was ready to change things up. My business was starting to grow and evolve, my life was getting a little more hectic, I was getting some more regular opportunities for fitness photo shoots, and thus, had to be in more consistent shape vs. just dieting down once a year for a competition.

I also had been reading some of Ori Hofmekler’s books (The Warrior Diet & Maximum Muscle, Minimum Fat), as well as various related research studies. So my confidence was starting to grow that a more practical and functional diet structure could work just as well for attaining higher-level physique goals.

I took some time off, devised a new strategy, and took it for a test drive. My diet set-up for the next two years or so looked something like this:

  1. A protein only breakfast.
  2. A Paleo-style lunch (animal protein, non-starchy veggies, piece of whole fruit).
  3. A big ass Japanese-style dinner (animal protein, starchy carbs from rice or roots) with the majority of calories and carbs at night.

I was scared because I had never really dieted any other way than with the traditional fitness spread. But this new plan worked great, was much easier to execute than the 6-gun (meals) spread, and yielded just as good physique results.

I did a couple of fitness shoots and another natural bodybuilding competition during that time.

Chris Choi Fitness Shoot
Chris Choi Photography
Ironman Show
NPC Ironman Naturals

Towards the end of this time frame, I wrote about this approach in a few of my articles on T-Nation, as well as in my first book The Samurai Diet.

2012-2014 – Various Intermittent Fasting & Feasting Protocols

I really enjoyed the transition to the more natural, practical, functional, and more easily socially integrated approach that the 3 meals a day pattern provided.

I also dug eating a big, satiating meal at night just from a sheer ease and enjoyment of diet perspective. Even when I had to ramp it up for more aggressive fat loss phases before a photo shoot, the diet seemed a whole hell of a lot easier.

Thus, in addition to targeted diet numbers and emphasizing Island-style food choices, “feasting”, or eating a big satiating meal at night, became a core principle in my diet style.

Keep in mind Ori Hofmekler deserves the majority of the credit for that strategy (at least from my perspective = he was the first fitness dude I ever heard talk about it). And actually, evolution deserves the real credit. For most of our existence we were hunter-gatherers – hunting and/or gathering while eating lighter during the day, and then feasting at night on whatever we caught.

Anyways, the nighttime as the right time for the bulk of my food intake was set, as well as the overall daily numbers and food choices. But after reading more studies on intermittent fasting and meal frequency flexibility, and some of Martin Berkhan’s articles, I wanted to experiment with different diet patterns during the rest of the day, including intermittent fasting.

So over the next 3 years or so, I experimented with various daily intermittent fasting protocols (the time period without food never went more than 16-20 hours). That’s different than alternate day fasting plans where you fast for a whole day once or twice a week. I don’t think that’s advantageous from a physique, performance, adherence, or natural circadian rhythm perspective. But I could be wrong.

Regardless, the intermittent fasting plan I integrated the most was similar to Martin Berkhan’s Lean Gains set-up (fast for 16 hours and eat all of your meals within an 8-hour feeding window), except I still ate my biggest meal with the majority of my calories and carbs at night, regardless of when I trained:

  1. Breakfast: black coffee, no food.
  2. Lunch: Paleo-style (piece of protein, non-starchy veggies, piece of whole fruit)
  3. Dinner: Japanese-style Feast (piece of protein plus all starchy carb intake from rice or root veggies).
  4. I added a piece of whole fruit before and/or after my training sessions, which were usually in the fasting period.

But there were other periods during those years where my diet gravitated more towards Hofmekler’s Warrior Diet recommendations:

  1. Breakfast: black coffee, no food.
  2. During the day: 1-2 pieces of whole fruit and/or hard-boiled egg snacks.
  3. One huge, main meal at night with pretty much all of my remaining food intake.

Man, these plans were so easy to follow. Life didn’t revolve around my eating schedule. And since I was on the go all the time (splitting my work week between training private clients, writing, and working part-time with a few start-up companies, starting early at 5am and ending late at 8pm or so, traveling frequently, etc., it was great to just have to worry about nailing down a solid lunch and dinner wherever I was or however the day unfolded, or even just having a few healthy, whole foods snacks throughout the day if that’s all I could get down, and then eating a big meal at night when I finally had time to relax, and actually properly digest my food.

I did a few more shoots and a fitness model show during that time.

fitness america
Fitness America
Natalie Minh Photography
Natalie Minh Photography

I wrote about this approach in my ebook Feast Your Fat Away (which is set to get a name, branding, and marketing re-boot soon)

2015 – A Return of the 3 & Feast Set-Up with a Slightly Different Distribution

At the beginning of this year, I felt it was time to re-evaluate. Although the intermittent fasting approaches were slightly better from a functional perspective, I felt I got in just a little bit better shape with the 3 & Feast set-up from the past = my protein intake spread out over 3 traditional meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with an escalating carb intake.

I also felt that since I had been consistently lean for so long, and didn’t have much fat left to lose, the fasting period had lost its effectiveness, and might have even been leading to some muscle loss and compromised performance in my training sessions.

I also decided to simplify my work (and social) life, focus on only the essentials, and eliminate a lot of the useless shit that was keeping me busy and running around like a chicken with its head cut off, but getting me nowhere and/or not really adding any enjoyment or value to my life. Death (of a couple of family members) has a way of putting things into the proper perspective.

Anyways, as a result, I had a little bit more time again for food prep and whatnot, and to sit down and actually eat meals at regular times, etc.

I had read a few fantastic articles over the years by my buddy Borge Fagerli (Is There an Optimal Ratio of Carbs to ProteinThe Biorhythm Diet) that I was keeping in the back of my mind, and wanted to integrate when the time was right to strike with a few new strategies. So as the calendar turned to 2015, I put those diet structure play call audibles into action. Here’s what I’ve been rolling with ever since the start of the year:

  1. Protein spread relatively evenly across the traditional 3 meals a day – breakfast, lunch, dinner.
  2. The biggest meal, and highest percentage of calories and carbs, is still at night “feast-style”. I don’t think I’ll ever change that strategy.
  3. A moderate amount of carbs with breakfast and lunch, usually in a 1:1 ratio with protein.
  4. Since I’m eating 3 protein and carb-based meals a day every 5-6 hours or so, I do nothing with nutrient timing/peri-workout nutrition. I just eat the basic 3 meals a day regardless of when I train, which is usually mid-to-late morning.

I’ve settled in seamlessly to this new/slight variation of one of my older approaches. I honestly feel like I’ve gotten into the best shape of my life, but that just could be because of years of consistency, muscle maturity, and the fact that I’m entering the prime years for the natural physique game (most of the natural dudes I know believe that is around 35-45).

And of course, my seemingly shrinking wiener could just be creating a physique illusion.

I did an impromptu photo shoot in the Spring (had just two weeks to prepare).

Loren Simpelo Photography

I’ve also been keeping track of my conditioning with non-pro photos. I still refuse to take selfies…

Kalai's I-phone. Sorry to my wife she must contribute to this fitness ridiculousness.
Kalai’s I-phone. Sorry to my wife she must contribute to this fitness ridiculousness.

Wrap-Up, Retrospective, Practical Application, & The 6-Pack Checklist

I know on the surface, this post seems like its all about me and my vanity. But the purpose is really to help you find your diet structure Way. To be honest, I’ve already found multiple ways that work for me.

Pondering life's most important questions, including how can I get a 6-pack?
Pondering life’s most important questions, including how can I help you frickin’ slash fat and get a 6-pack?

So I want to end this post by reminding you of the general conclusion Brad Schoenfeld, Alan Aragon, and James Krieger came to in their meta-analysis of meal frequency studies:

The small difference in magnitude of effect between frequencies suggests that any potential benefits, if they exist at all, have limited practical significance. Given that adherence is of primary concern with respect to nutritional prescription, the number of daily meals consumed should come down to personal choice if one’s goal is to improve body composition.

My practical experience yields relatively the same conclusions: consistently hitting targeted diet numbers is the most important step for achieving higher-level physique goals, emphasizing good food choices makes sticking to your numbers a whole hell of a lot easier (due to their effects on nutrient density and satiety), and your diet structure for the most part should really be just about making sticking to 1 & 2 as practical, functional, sustainable, easy, and enjoyable as possible.

If you eat shitty foods in caloric excess with the wrong macronutrient ratios, you won’t get good physique results with fitness nutrition spreads.

If you eat shitty foods in caloric excess with the wrong macronutrient ratios, you won’t get good physique results with the traditional 3 meals a day, intermittent fasting, or any other alternative diet structure.

If you eat good foods in a moderate caloric deficit with targeted macronutrient ratios, you can get good physique results with traditional fitness nutrition spreads.

If you eat good foods in a moderate caloric deficit with targeted macronutrient ratios, you can get good physique results with the traditional 3 meals a day, intermittent fasting, or any other alternative diet structure.

See what I’m saying baby?

Ditch the dogma of any approach – from traditional bodybuilding myths to gung-ho intermittent fasting aficionados. You have the freedom test and assess to see what works best for you. You also have the freedom to refine it, or completely change it up over time, depending on your current circumstances, goals, and priorities.

Well my fitness friend, I hope you find something that works well for you.

Am I a crazy, OCD, ADD fitness person that reads too much research from too many different resources and can’t make up his mind? Or am I maybe one of the sane few that understands a variety of approaches can work well depending on the individual situation and circumstances? I’ll let you decide my legacy.

If you do happen to dig the stuff I’m spitting out regarding these topics, and you think they can help you reach your goals, then I suggest you sign-up to grab my next book – The 6 Pack Checklist: A Step-by-Step Guide to Shredded Abs – for free when it hits the stands this summer.

Free Book Sign-Up

The book goes into more details about the hierarchy of importance when it comes to higher-level fat loss and physique transformation goals, and gives you targeted strategies along with a step-by-step guide/checklist to help you finally get that job done.