Meal timing, or nutrient timing, is a theme that shows up on and off in the world of nutrition. This is for good reason! Meal timing IS important no matter what some people might tell you. However, it may not be AS important as others say, or important for the reasons they convey.
First, meal timing is NOT the same as meal frequency.
Meal frequency is how many times you eat during the day. To keep this short and sweet, it doesn’t matter. Total calorie intake matters, and it doesn’t matter whether that is spread over 2 massive meals or 16 tiny snacks. Find what frequency works best for your lifestyle, and go with it. The end.
Meal TIMING is when you eat meals or snacks. Many good questions have been asked in regards to specific times over the last few weeks, so why not address them all here?
1) Is there a specific time of day you should stop eating?
Yes, and no. Old school thought was that if you eat anything after 7 pm (ish) – especially a carb – it will summon the insulin fairy straight into your body and cause you to store all that food as fat.
That is not true. Total calories matter.
However, eating later at night COULD lead to weight gain indirectly. First, if you eat more food at night, and you weigh yourself in the morning, your weight might be a little higher cause you have more “stuff” inside of you. That is literally just weight.
Otherwise, let’s be honest – most people aren’t late-night snacking on pea pods and carrot sticks. Nighttime snacks tend to be higher in calories, and if you aren’t paying attention to your intake, this could be leading to eating too much – but this can also happen at any time of the day.
Lastly, if you eat too close to bedtime, your body may be trying to digest food while you are trying to get to sleep. This can cause a decrease in sleep quality, which over time, can lead to a decrease in glucose tolerance, AND actually make you crave more sugary goodness the next day – again, making the battle more uphill, but not impossible.
2) If I workout first thing in the morning, do I need to eat something before?
Probably not. Unless you are training for more than 90-120 minutes, your last meal of the day yesterday is probably enough fuel to get you through.
So people can tolerate a little snack before, some can’t.
But if you are working out at 5 AM, and want time to digest your snack, so you get up at 3:30 AM to eat, which cuts into your sleep…yeah, no – just get the extra sleep, and have a little water and maybe some electrolytes during your training session.
Sacrificing sleep to eat a piece of toast because you think you NEED it for a 45-minute moderate training session is a bad idea.
3) Do I need to eat within a certain time of ending my workout?
Yes, if you are training hard.
The “anabolic window” used to be 30 minutes after a workout. You had to sprint to your car and slam a protein shake before all your gains went away. It’s not that crazy anymore.
However, if you are training hard – pushing some heavy weights, breaking down a lot of muscle, or doing sprint work – you will want to spark the recovery process ASAP, and this window is more like 2 hours. So, no need to rush, but get something in your body soon-ish.
What should you eat? – some carbs and protein. It used to be thought that the carbs were needed to help shuttle the amino acids from protein into your muscles – but actually, the carbs help mitigate the cortisol spike that you get from hard training, and shift your body into recovery mode.
The protein helps start the muscle repair process which is important because this is when your muscles actually grow. How much protein? Shoot for .18g/pound post-workout.
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4) What about eating carbs only around your workouts?
This is a good strategy for some people, but not necessary. It is based on the idea that carbs are fuel for training, so you want to fuel up before and after your most active part of the day, and eat fewer carbs when you are less active.
If calories are controlled, this actually doesn’t matter.
However, if you are doing long training sessions or running a marathon, then yes, you will need some carbs to replenish your glycogen.
Some people feel charged up when eating carbs before a workout, so they are able to train harder. Some people feel sluggish if they eat carbs before a workout. You have to find what is right for YOU.
Also – for some people, this simple strategy just helps them control calories more, so it defacto works, but there is nothing magic about it.
Don’t overthink this stuff…
At the end of the day, you need to figure out what works best for your schedule, your body, and your lifestyle. Play around with timing, but keep it consistent for a week or so before making a judgment call on if it was good or bad for you.
If you need help getting started, look no further than online coaching. Training and nutrition! Let me help you find the best plan for you – from anywhere in the world.
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