Tag Archives: energy expenditure

Meal frequency, intermittent fasting, and dietary protein

Dietary protein “requirements” are some of the most context-dependent nutrient levels to decipher, and depend largely on energy balance and even meal frequency.

An objective look at intermittent fasting (Alan Aragon, 2007)

Meal frequency and energy balance (Lyle McDonald, 2008)

New study: “Increased meal frequency attenuates fat-free mass losses and some markers of health status with a portion-controlled weight loss diet” (Alencar et al., 2015)

This wasn’t well-received in social media because bro-science & many low carb advocates say grazing is no longer in vogue — “it’s much better/healthier/whatever to eat once or twice daily, because intermittent fasting and all that jazz” …however, this may be problematic when it comes to meeting overall protein needs, which is particularly important when you’re losing weight.



The study: 2 vs. 6 meals per day, crossover.  

Conclusion: “On average, fat-free mass (FFM) decreased by -3.3% following the 2 meals/d condition and, on average, and increased by 1.2% following the 6 meals/d condition (P<.05).”  


fat-free mass


In other words, 6 meals per day was better for body composition than 2 meals per day.  But context is everything, and this hypothesis has been tested from a variety of different angles, so what does it mean?  

The relevant context here: 1) big energy deficit (1200 kcal/d for obese women is a pretty low calorie intake); and 2) “adequateTM” protein intake (75 g/d).

The standard dogma says that in the context of an adequate protein hypocaloric diet, meal frequency matters a LOT, whereas with high protein, it doesn’t matter as much.  Theory being that with an “adequate” (read: too low?) overall protein intake, the fasting periods are simply too long with only two meals per day; you need either: 1) higher protein intake; 2) increased meal frequency; or 3) more calories (ie, smaller energy deficit).  

In this study, BOTH diets suppressed insulin and induced weight loss, but the increased protein feeding frequency skewed the weight loss to body fat while preserving fat-free mass.   I actually agree with a lot of the bro-science in this case, and also think that 75 grams of protein is not enough in the context of a big energy deficit (if body composition is a goal).    


Historical precedence?


Meal frequency and weight reduction of young women (Finkelstein et al., 1971)

Relevant context:  6 vs. 3 meals per day (3 meals per day may not seem like that many more than 2, but it significantly cuts down on the duration of time spent with no food or protein).

Smaller energy deficit: 1700 kcal/d in overweight patients is less of a deficit than 1200 kcal/d in obese patients.

Higher protein intake: 106 – 115g/d.

Result: nitrogen balance (a surrogate for the maintenance of muscle mass) and fat loss were similar in both groups.  This study fixed two problems in the abovementioned study: 1) 3 meals is better than 2 in the context of an energy deficit; and 2) protein intake was higher.


And again here, with 3 vs. 6 meals per day (Cameron et al., 2010), just to make the point that 3 meals per day is better than 2 for preserving lean mass in the context of an energy deficit.


The effect of meal frequency and protein concentration on the composition of the weight lost by obese subjects (Garrow et al., 1981)

This study tested the opposite extremes: super-low calorie intake (800 kcal/d), much lower protein intakes (20g – 30g/d), and 1 vs. 5 meals per day.

Result: “a diet with a high-protein concentration, fed as frequent small meals, is associated with better preservation of lean tissue than an isoenergetic diet with lower-protein concentration fed as fewer meals.”

It basically confirmed all of the above.


Protein feeding pattern does not affect protein retention in young women (Arnal et al., 2000)

1 vs. 4 meals per day; and 70 grams of protein but no energy deficit (~2000 kcal/d isn’t very hypocaloric for lean young women).  In this study, no effect of meal frequency was seen, likely because 70 grams of protein isn’t inadequate when energy intake isn’t restricted.






3. MEAL FREQUENCY & meal timing and peripheral circadian clocks > “MACRONUTRIENTS”


If you’re losing weight (ie, in an energy deficit), then intermittent fasting is cool if protein intake is high (above “adequateTM“)… the bigger the energy deficit, the more protein is necessary to optimize changes in body composition.


How much is ‘enough?’  Sorry, can’t give you a gram or even gram per pound of body weight answer… but if you’re losing weight and seeing no discernible effect on body composition (muscle vs. fat mass), then it may be prudent to consider eating more protein-rich foods… and paying more attention to sleep quality (which also greatly impacts nutrient partitioning).

No amount of protein will help you if circadian rhythms aren’t intact!!!



further reading:

Yes, it’s a high protein diet (Tom Naughton, 2015)

Protein requirements, carbs, and nutrient partitioning

Dietary protein, ketosis, and appetite control 



calories proper



Carbs: Low vs. Lower



This was met with much backlash from the low carb cavalry, because, well, if low is good then lower must be better

I’m not anti-keto; but I’m not anti-science.  FACT.  


“…some people are not genetically equipped to thrive in prolonged nutritional ketosis.” –Peter Attia

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CICO and rant

“Wait… what?  nutrient partitioning?”

Calories In, Calories Out should not be interpreted as “eat less, move more,” but rather kept in its more meaningless form of: “if you eat less than you expend, you’ll lose weight.”  At least then, it’s correct… meaningless, but correct.  Eating less and moving more is no guarantee of fat loss, in part, because total energy expenditure isn’t constant and there’s that whole thing with nutrient partitioning.

For obese insulin resistant folks, this is Low Carb’s strong suit: it causes “eat less, move more”spontaneously.

For some obese insulin sensitive patients, for whatever reason, their adherence and success is greater with Low Fat.  You might say, “yeah, but those suckers had to count calories.”  To that, I’d counter with: “it doesn’t matter, THEY WERE MORE SUCCESSFUL COUNTING CALORIES ON LOW FAT THAN NOT COUNTING ON LOW CARB.”  The spontaneous reduction in appetite obviously didn’t cut it.  Do not be in denial of these cases.

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Evolution stole this dude’s circadian rhythm

I got a laugh out of this one; not for the actual content, but because of how the authors worded their findings.  They sure love their fishies.

We have two very closely related fish, both Mexican tetra, Astyanax mexicanus, one with eyes who lives on the surface, and another who’s blind and lives in dark caves (“Pachon”).  It’s thought that they were the same species one day; divergent evolution.


note: eyeless

note: eyeless

The blind ones are circadian arrhythmic (Moran et al., 2014).  Surface-dwellers are more active during the day than night (blue line, left figure below), and their free-running circadian clock maintains this in the absence of photic input (blue line, right figure).  The blind ones, on the other hand, exhibit no circadian rhythm in the light or dark (orange lines):


Circadian rhythm metabolism


Cave-dwellers are circadian arrhythmic.  This is both in their natural photoperiod (ie, darkness) and in light-dark conditions (which is technically an environmental mismatch, but since they’re eyeless, it doesn’t really matter).

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“Afternoon diabetes” and nutrient partitioning

Don’t exacerbate afternoon diabetes with afternoon carbs.

Skeletal Muscle
As discussed previously [at length], insulin sensitivity in skeletal muscle follows a circadian pattern: starts out high in the morning and wanes throughout the day.

Diurnal variation in oral glucose tolerance: blood sugar and plasma insulin levels, morning, afternoon and evening (Jarrett et al., 1972)


impaired circadian glucose tolerance in the morning


Diurnal variation in glucose tolerance and insulin secretion in man (Carroll and Nestel, 1973)

Circadian variation of the blood glucose, plasma insulin and human growth hormone levels in response to an oral glucose load in normal subjects (Aparicio et al., 1974)

Adipose Tissue
And insulin sensitivity of adipose tissue goes in the opposite direction: starts out low, and increases as the day progresses.

Diurnal variations in peripheral insulin resistance and plasma NEFA: a possible link? (Morgan et al., 1999)
The studies were standardized for a period of fasting, pre-test meal, and exercise… Following insulin, NEFA fell more slowly in the morning (149 uM/15 min) than in the evening (491 uM/15 min).

Diurnal variation in glucose tolerance: associated changes in plasma insulin, growth hormone, and non-esterified fatty acids (Zimmet et al., 1974)
Adipose tissue insulin sensitivity is greater in the evening.  FFA are higher, and get shut down more rapidly, after a carb meal in the evening.

Summary: to minimize blood glucose excursions and proclivity for fat storage, eat more calories earlier in the day; this is circadian nutrient timing.  And according to the Alves study, a low-carb protein-rich dinner best preserves lean tissue during weight loss.

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Ketoadaptation and physiological insulin resistance

This is where the magic happens.

Rat pups, fed a flaxseed oil-based ketogenic diet from weaning onward – note the drop-off in ketones after 2 weeks (Likhodii et al., 2002):

flaxseed ketogenic diet

What happened on day 17?

Patient history: these rats have been “low carb” their whole lives.

Side note: flaxseed oil is very ketogenic! (Likhodii et al., 2000):

ketogenic rodent diets

Flaxseed oil-based ketogenic diet produced higher ketones than 48h fasting; the same can’t be said for butter or lard.  PUFAs in general are more ketogenic than saturated fats in humans, too (eg, Fuehrlein et al., 2004):Saturated polyunsaturated ketones

Crisco keto (adult rats) (Rho et al., 1999):

shortening-based ketogenic diet

suspect those two rogue peaks were experiment days…

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Cyclical ketosis, glycogen depletion, and nutrient partitioning

Meal & exercise timing in the contexts of “damage control” and nutrient partitioning are frequent topics on this blog.  I generally opt for a pre-workout meal, but nutrient timing hasn’t panned out very well in the literature.  That’s probably why I’m open to the idea of resistance exercise in the fasted state.  A lot of pseudoscientific arguments can be made for both fed and fasted exercise, and since a few blog posts have already been dedicated to the former, this one will focus on the latter.

The pseudoscience explanation is something like this: since fatty acids are elevated when fasting, exercise in this condition will burn more fat; and chronically doing so will increase mitochondria #.  The lack of dietary carbs might enhance exercise-induced glycogen depletion, which itself would bias more post-workout calories toward glycogen synthesis / supercompensation.  Much of this is actually true, but has really only been validated for endurance training (eg, Stannard 2010, Van Proeyen 2011, & Trabelsi 2012; but not here Paoli 2011)… and the few times it’s been studied in the context of resistance exercise, no effect (eg, Moore 2007 & Trabelsi 2013).  However, there are some pretty interesting tidbits (beyond the pseudoscience) which suggest how/why it might work, in the right context.

Exercising fasted or fed for fat loss?  Influence of food intake on RER and EPOC after a bout of endurance training (Paoli et al., 2011)

John Kiefer, an advocate of resistance exercise in the fasted state, mentioned: “the sympathetic nervous system responds quicker to fasted-exercise. You release adrenaline faster. Your body is more sensitive particularly to the fat burning properties of adrenaline and you get bigger rushes of adrenaline.”

Much of this is spot on.  That is, ketogenic dieting and glycogen depletion increase exercise-induced sympathetic activation and fat oxidation (eg, Jansson 1982, Langfort 1996, & Weltan 1998).

The question is: can this improve nutrient partitioning and physical performance?  Magic 8-Ball says: “Signs point to yes.”  I concur.

Contrary to popular beliefs, glycogen depletion per se doesn’t harm many aspects of physical performance.  A lot of fuel systems are at play; you don’t need a full tank of glycogen.

Effect of low-carbohydrate-ketogenic diet on metabolic and hormonal responses to graded exercise in men (Langfort et al., 1996)

High-intensity exercise performance is not impaired by low intramuscular glycogen (Symons & Jacobs, 1989)

Increased fat oxidation compensates for reduced glycogen at lower exercise intensities (eg, Zderic 2004), and ketoadaptation may do the same at higher intensities.

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Ketosis in an evolutionary context

Humans are unique in their remarkable ability to enter ketosis.  They’re also situated near the top of the food chain.  Coincidence?

During starvation, humans rapidly enter ketosis; they do this better than king penguins, and bears don’t do it at all.

Starvation ketosis


Starvation ketosis

Humans maintain a high level of functionality during starvation.  We can still hunt & plan; some would even argue it’s a more finely tuned state, cognitively.  And that’s important, because if we became progressively weaker and slower, chances of acquiring food would rapidly decline.

Perhaps this is why fasting bears just sleep most of the time: no ketones = no bueno..?

Observation: chronic ketosis is relatively rare in nature.  Angelo Coppola interpreted that to mean animals may have evolved a protective mechanism against ketosis (if you were following along, please let me know if this is a misrepresentation).

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Protein “requirements,” carbs, and nutrient partitioning 

One way to determine protein requirements is the nitrogen balance technique.  If all of the nitrogen from dietary protein intake is equivalent to that lost via feces, urine, and sweat, then one is in nitrogen balance.  Growing children and pregnant women are usually in positive nitrogen balance, because much of the nitrogen is being invested in the growth of new tissue.  Cachectic cancer patients and sarcopenic elderly may be in negative nitrogen balance, because they’re losing lean mass.

Protein requirements to maintain nitrogen balance are largely dependent on total energy intake.  More calories in, less protein needed.  For people in negative energy balance (losing weight), this usually means more protein is required else muscle will be wasted.

Exercise lowers, not raises, protein “requirements,” because exercise is a potent anabolic stimulus; it helps preserve nitrogen at any level of dietary protein.  That’s not to say more won’t improve functional outcomes; just that it’s not “necessary” to prevent muscle loss.

Need =/= optimization.

Lastly, total grams, not percent of calories, is the most relevant way to talk about protein requirements in the context of nutrient partitioning and body composition.  This is just how protein operates.

Part 2.  The poor, misunderstood Randle Cycle

“The glucose-sparing effect of fat-derived fuels” …when you’re body starts burning more fat (and fat-derived fuels; ie, ketones), it’s use of glucose declines.  Thus, it’s “glucose-sparing” (spares glucose for the brain and obligatory glycolytic tissues, yada yada yada).

During starvation, much of that glucose comes from amino acids from skeletal muscle proteins, so it can also be phrased as: “the muscle-sparing effect of fat-derived fuels,”  which is equally biologically relevant, because similar to zeroglycemia, an unabated loss of muscle is incompatible with survival.

That is, in starvation, where the “protein” is skeletal muscle, not dietary (because starvation)… but what about when following a low carb or ketogenic diet – do ketones (fat-derived fuels) exert a muscle-sparing effect in this context?

One study compared the impact of two isonitrogenous diets, low carb (Diet A) vs. high carb (Diet B), on nitrogen balance and showed that, except at very high levels of energy intake, nitrogen balance was consistently better on high carb.

carbs vs protein req


However, 51 kcal/kg is the textbook number of kcals “required” for young, moderately active adults.  With this understanding, it could be interpreted to mean that nitrogen balance is better with low carb (Diet A) for people in energy balance; and better with high carb (Diet B) if energy deficit.

edit: 51 kcal/kg is for athletes; probably about 20-25% less for non-athletes.

Or not: in another study, a low carb diet promoted better nitrogen retention albeit less weight loss than an isocaloric low fat diet.  The low carb group lost slightly more fat mass, which, combined with nitrogen balance data, suggest modestly improved body composition.  The differences were small, because this was a “non-ad lib” isocaloric diet study.  In the absence of large differences in intake, the most we can expect from such studies are subtle alterations in nutrient partitioning (which are usually difficult to detect).

Cancer cachexia is a condition of severe muscle wasting, and one study set out to determine, more directly, if ketones spared muscle in this context.  The study only lasted one week, but I suspect a certain degree of expedited ketoadaptation because: 1) it was very low in carbohydrate; 2) the fat was primarily MCTs; 3) they supplemented oral ketones; and 4) energy expenditure is elevated in this population.  Both the control and ketogenic diets were modestly hypercaloric, but nitrogen balance was more favorably improved by the high carb diet, in contrast to the above studies.

Thus, ketones don’t work in the context of a hypercaloric diet; however, pharmacologically elevating ketones via intravenous infusion in fasting subjects does work (because it’s more like starvation).

The muscle-sparing effect of fat-derived fuels is conceptually and physiologically more relevant to starvation, not nutritional ketosis.

Part 3.  Protein “requirements”

Effects of high-protein diets on fat-free mass and muscle protein synthesis following weight loss: a randomized controlled trial (Pasiakos et al., 2013) 

Protein intake was 1x, 2x, or 3x the RDA; fat was 30% of calories, and carbs made up the rest; on a weight maintenance diet and again on 30% calorie restriction (it was technically a 40% energy deficit, because they tried to ramp up energy expenditure with exercise).


All groups lost weight, but the ratio of fat to muscle loss was significantly higher in the 2x and 3x RDA groups, which amounted to ~120 and 185 grams of protein per day, respectively.  The 3x group didn’t fare as well, possibly, because that much protein induces a high degree of satiety – this group ended up consuming significantly fewer calories than the 2x group.  So the interplay between energy intake and protein requirements is back on the table: the added energy deficit apparently increased protein requirements to some level above 185 grams per day.  Not much, given the small difference in muscle loss, but increased none the less.

Side note: be cautious when interpreting a study about the amount of protein required for xyz endpoint, because such studies usually only measure one of many important markers, and they don’t report absolute changes in size, strength, etc.  Also, context matters.

For example, Moore and colleagues (2014) showed that 0.24 g/kg (17 grams for a 70 kg adult) was enough to maximally stimulate myofibrillar fractional synthetic rate (mFSR):


However, in the contexts of three square meals and energy balance (or deficit), 0.72 g/kg (50 g/d) is woefully inadequate.  Point being: mFSR (in this case) is only one measurement and shouldn’t be extrapolated to total daily requirements.  Perhaps you could eat six 17 g servings in order to fully maximize 24-hour mFSR, or you could realize that going above what saturates mFSR isn’t a bad thing, or wasteful.  mFSR is just one of many measurements of muscle protein balance.

My opinion

For those who need exact numbers, hopefully one point I’ve made is that there’s no answer to this question.  I’d guess that most people “need” 100+ grams of protein per day (more if losing weight), and 100 grams is probably too much in one sitting.  Also, need =/= optimization, and context matters.

Nutritional ketosis doesn’t appear to reduce the amount of dietary protein necessary to maintain lean mass.  The muscle-sparing of fat-derived fuels works during starvation; in other contexts, all bets are off.

calories proper


Carb Back-Loading, take II

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with John Kiefer and his crew about Carb Back-Loading proper; we discussed the protocol and many other hormonal effects associated with this pattern of nutrient & exercise timing.  Interesting stuff; plenty of fodder for future blog posts…

Brief refresher: skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity is higher in the morning than in the evening.  Exercise boosts insulin sensitivity selectively in muscle, which is relatively more important in the evening.  Thus, an evening carb-load may benefit from exercise to effectively partition the energy influx into skeletal muscle [and away from adipose tissue].

Summary of Part 1 of my CBL review: studies on nutrient timing sans exercise aren’t entirely consistent, in part, due to reciprocal regulation of insulin sensitivity in skeletal muscle and adipose tissue.  That is, excess energy from an evening carb-load, without the exercise-induced, skeletal muscle-specific boost in insulin sensitivity, may be biased less toward muscle growth and more toward fat storage, because unlike skeletal muscle, the sensitivity of adipose tissue to insulin appears to improve as the day progresses… and without exercise to offset this, as in the studies discussed below, this may lead to suboptimal results.

*one thing Kiefer stressed, and I agree, is that the effects of any given intervention may be population-specific.  For example, he pointed out that diurnal insulin sensitivity is less robust in obese and aged populations.  So if two findings aren’t in full agreement, click the link to the study and check this first… context matters!



Tl;dr: I think high intensity exercise and possibly the time of day it’s performed, and regular bouts of fasting, are important factors that mediate the efficacy of CBL and similar protocols. Continue reading