The online fitness community is ever-expanding, and as consumers we are faced with masses of information on a daily basis.
Whilst this information sharing opens up incredible opportunities for learning, it simultaneously forces us to confront the issue of who is worth listening to, and who is best cast aside.
A topic guaranteed to get people talking and split opinion is meal timing.
Traditionally, gym goers might preach that meal timing is everything… Calling on you to neck a protein shake before your feet hit the floor in the morning, then follow up with an alarm for your subsequent 30g protein dose every 2.5 hours. All whilst nailing your pre and post workout nutrition, and of course avoiding carbs at night like they are going out of fashion.
But then as of late we have seen a different end of the spectrum rise in popularity. With countless spins put on ‘intermittent fasting’ and even competitive physique athletes taking a more flexible approach to their diet – so that weekly totals and overall food intake are all that seems to matter.
With the speculation and rumors aside, let’s make sense of the scientific research on meal timing. What has actually been shown in real, human studies? And what does that mean for you?
#1) Overall Daily Calorie Intake is King
Despite the countless details we could explore with meal timing, your actual calorie intake remains the overbearing factor.
If your body maintains weight at 2500 calories and you take in 3000 daily, you WILL gain weight. Whether those calories are from one Man Vs Food-style showdown, or they sneak under the radar disguised as 8 sporadic snacks.
Studies show that once daily intake is equally matched – almost all otherwise noteworthy factors become accounted for.
Meaning it makes up the biggest part of the picture and provides a foundation for the rest of your diet.
Take Home Message #1
Know your intake and focus on controlling that before you entertain anything else. Understanding your body’s response to a certain amount of calories is valuable information and will provide you with a base of knowledge going forward.
Focus on eating the right amount of calories for your goals, above the precise timing of different nutrients.
#2) Eating More Frequently Will NOT ‘Speed Your Metabolism’
The ‘Thermic Effect of Food’ (TEF) is the amount of calories your body burns in order to digest food.
TEF is dependent upon the calorie content of a meal, not the frequency of meals.
Studies have shown no change in TEF with meal patterns ranging from 2-7 meals per day. However, a reduced TEF has been observed in sedentary people that follow a sporadic weekly feeding schedule.
Take Home Message #2
Find a moderate, daily feeding schedule that best fits your lifestyle. Stay within the 2-7 meal range and your metabolism will be operating like a well oiled machine.
#3) Spacing Out Protein Intake May Benefit Your Muscle Mass
Net muscle protein synthesis moves in waves throughout the day. As you eat protein – it temporarily increases and peaks, followed by a steady decrease until your next meal. So fasting for extended periods increases your body’s time spent in a state of breakdown.
But pause the search for a protein-infused IV just yet. As studies have shown that once muscle protein synthesis is maximized – there is a refractory period, that requires waiting until your body is ready to maximize it again. Making you wait to reap the benefits of a high protein meal once more.
Take Home Message #3
Research has shown the sweet-spot to be a serving of high quality protein every 4-6 hours. To really ensure you maximize the muscles’ response to what you are eating – opt for sources high in the amino acid Leucine. Such as chicken, beef, eggs, whey, turkey and fish.
#4) There is NOT a One Hour ‘Anabolic Window’ Surrounding Your Workout
The notion that there is a single hour after your workout to capitalize on food intake actually originated from research done in the 1980s. But luckily, scientists did not call it a day there and then. As evidence has since surfaced to disprove that you need protein and ‘fast acting’ carbohydrates within an hour of your session.
In fact, a recent analysis has suggested a far more practical 4‐6 hour time slot surrounding your workout.
Protein and carbohydrates consumed in this time may work synergistically with the positive impact training has on your body.
Take Home Message #4
Intuitively, it makes sense to consume protein and carbohydrates to help fuel your weight lifting performance and recover effectively.
But you are most likely safe eating a couple of hours before your workout, then heading home to cook and enjoy a meal leisurely afterwards. Just ensure a good protein and carbohydrate dose with each meal.
The one caveat is if you train twice in a single day. At which point quickly replenishing your glycogen with carbohydrates becomes important to your performance.
First and foremost, focus on your daily calorie intake. Before finding a meal schedule that best fits your lifestyle, ideally between two and seven meals a day. Spread your protein intake out over those meals if you want to maximize muscle gain. Then, to fuel your performance and recover well – aim to eat protein and carbohydrates in the 4-6 hour interval around your workout.
It is repeated efforts, sustained over a long period of time that yield results. I get it, that is not new and sexy. It does not promise 30-day abs nor guarantee less work and more results. But, creating your ideal physique involves playing the long game. By choosing sustainability and enjoyment over short term extreme measures, you can appreciate the journey all the more. Ensuring that the process is just as gratifying as the end goal.