You know that thing we all do when we get a sniffle and decide the best course of action is to run to google for an immediate "diagnosis"?
Well, some people take this one step further and send popcorn-style questions regarding their health to the wellness professionals in their lives. It appears that I am no exception. Some people in my life (who shall remain nameless) pop into my messages randomly, only to ask questions about their diet and workout plans. The problem is simple black-and-white questions without context lead to answers that are deep shades of grey. I'm still amazed they keep sending me these questions because they should know by now that the answer, "well, it depends," rolls off my tongue almost like a nervous tick.
The question I want to discuss today is one I often get: when should I eat my meals, otherwise known as nutrient timing or meal frequency, depending on the person who asked? One group is looking to maximize their strength or muscle gains in the gym; the other is looking to lose weight.
Is it essential to time our meals for muscle gain and weight loss? I will go back to my standard answer, as always: it depends.
What do you mean by nutrient timing or meal frequency?
According to the authors of the research piece Nutrient Timing: A garage door of opportunity, published in the journal Nutrients in 2020, nutrient timing "is a dietary strategy in which specific nutrients are ingested at certain times surrounding training to bolster acute performance and/or chronic adaptations."
Meal frequency is similar to nutrient timing in theory but differs based on the user's goal. While the avid gym user may use nutrient timing to grow their muscles or enhance their performance – an example would be gulping down a protein shake after a workout – someone looking to adjust their meal frequency during the day is more likely looking to eat at the best times to optimise weight loss.
So let us look at book situations separately.
The idea that the timing of your nutrient intake surrounding your training sessions could enhance your muscle growth and performance was popularized by research released by Cribb and Hayes in 2006. The results of their study, titled Effects of Supplement Timing and Resistance Exercise on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy, had bodybuilders and enthusiasts running to their protein shakers immediately after they slammed their barbells to the floor. According to this research, there was a precious sliver of time, an"anabolic window of opportunity", in which muscles would greedily suck up nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, and creatine post-exercise and start creating "mad gains" in muscle growth and performance. This window was approximately 30-45 minutes post-exercise. You could barely make it to the showers before you had to throw back a protein shake!
However, science has moved on, and it has become more apparent that the window of opportunity may be wider than once thought. In fact, researchers now claim that only looking at your post-exercise meal, excluding all other meal times, is a detriment to understanding how our bodies work and utilize nutrients.
In his article titled Is Nutrient Timing Dead, Precision Nutrition's director of nutrition, Brian St. Pierre, generalises the timeframe for gym users. St. Pierre says you're in the clear as long as you eat some protein and carbohydrates at some point after your exercise and continue eating them throughout the day. Of course, context matters. For various reasons, your nutrient timing will need to be more precise if you're an elite athlete.
If we're looking to lose weight or stay thin and trim, does it matter what day we eat? Initially, the eating strategy of eating multiple small meals a day stems partly from observational studies that slim people ate smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. Of course, making that observation universal across populations is a rookie mistake, though admittedly, it does work for some people.
A position paper released by the International Society of Sports Nutrition weighed the available evidence and determined there needs to be more evidence to comment conclusively. Studying meal frequency and optimal eating times can be problematic because data is largely self-reported over a long period, and results can skew if people purposefully skip a meal after a large meal. Subtleties such as this can misrepresent the data to appear that lower meal frequency automatically equals weight gain. Researchers have also discovered that social and cultural definitions of a "meal" versus a "snack" are entirely arbitrary, making any outcome of their research a bit nebulous.
After reviewing multiple studies, the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that when daily calories were held constant (but in a deficit), the amount of weight lost was not different throughout the different variations of meal frequency throughout the day.
And yes, let us not forget the 7 pm myth. On top of the confusion around "when to eat," there is a new trend of when not to eat. Some people shout from the rooftops that breakfast is best, and others tell us that dinner is the hero meal. You can research these meal timings and find supporting evidence for both sides. Another claim is that eating carbohydrates after 7 pm is the equivalent of Cinderella's pumpkin carriage at midnight. Confused? I'm not surprised.
Working out what is best for you
I'm not going to leave you feeling dizzy in the details. Let's bring this conversation back down to earth and talk cold, hard facts.
First, if you're trying to change your diet for weight loss or athletic performance, take a step back and ask yourself if you have the fundamentals of healthy eating set in your daily life. Dr John Berardi from Precision Nutrition has a great quote that says, "don't mow your lawn when your house is on fire." What he means by this is not to put your efforts towards a minimally beneficial task when a bigger problem is happening right under your nose. If you can't eat healthy meals at least 80% of the time consistently, there is no point in employing an eating strategy like meal frequency or nutrient timing. In doing so, you'll only add unnecessary complexity to your diet - and we know from dieting that if you confuse someone with details, they are more likely to fall off the wagon faster.
Your goal is to get a source of protein, carbohydrates, vegetables, and essential fats at each meal throughout the day. Breaking that up into snacks and meals is essentially up to you.
The primary driver behind weight loss is your cumulative calorie deficit throughout the day. Therefore the key to your success is to stay mindful and aware of your eating decisions over an entire day.
You're your own best experiment. Try tracking your food, hunger, and cravings and see what the results tell you. Do you feel better if you eat breakfast? Are you better able to reach lunch if you don't skip breakfast? Do you feel more energized if you're able to add a small snack mid-afternoon between breakfast and lunch? Your lifestyle will dictate whether or not three bigger meals or 5-6 smaller ones is ideal for you.
Pay particular attention to your cravings and food cues post-dinner time. Our evening food choices are rarely the best ones. Rarely have I seen someone crave bananas at 9 pm; it's generally banana-flavoured ice cream. People's resolve tends to flag by evening when exhaustion, boredom, or stress kicks in; therefore, avoiding or limiting these higher-calorie foods is harder. Find the sticky points in the day where you can make small changes for significant results.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight-loss coach