Timing your meals – does it really matter?

If you’re trying for a healthier lifestyle, you have probably heard one or all of these common claims:

  • Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
  • Eating carbs in the evening will encourage fat gain.
  • If you don’t eat within a narrow window after your workout, your muscles won’t get “fed.”

But are these actually TRUE? 
Let’s take a closer look: Can you enhance either fat loss or muscle gain by eating at specific times in your schedule?

First of, you should eat when you’re hungry.

For most people, these are common sense rules: Don’t worry about what time of day it is, eat when your body tells you it’s hungry. 

For many of us, that feels like a persistent emptiness in the belly, maybe accompanied by some grumbles. Some people get lightheaded or “hangry” (Hi! It’s me!). For others, it may simply feel like an “opening of the appetite.”

Either way: Unless you’re trying to achieve specific and extreme body composition outcomes, listen to hunger. Eating enough calories is the first and most basic priority of good nutrition.

Next up, chrononutrition matters… but only a little bit.

Research shows that chronutrition, aka the timing of nutrients, does actually make a difference. But for everyday folks, only marginally.

A 2022 study at Duke University had participants with “normal” or slightly overweight BMIs tracked to see how successful they were at maintaining a 25 percent calorie deficit. They also analyzed if results differed when participants ate the bulk of their calories in the earlier part of the day, or in the later part of the day. At the end of two years, participants who maintained a calorie deficit were the most likely to have lost weight. But participants who ate most of their calories earlier in the day were *slightly* better at maintaining a deficit, and lost *slightly* more weight.

How much more? Although the difference was statistically significant in the research, in practical terms, it actually added up to less than a pound.

Now, breakfast. Yes or no?

A lot of people simply feel better when they eat a balanced meal in the morning; it helps them to regulate appetite throughout the day. But others find that fasting in the morning is their key to leanness.

A study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition offers some intriguing insight into the breakfast/weight loss question. Researchers broke people up into four groups:

  • Habitual breakfast skippers assigned to eat breakfast
  • Habitual breakfast skippers assigned to skip breakfast
  • Habitual breakfast eaters assigned to eat breakfast
  • Habitual breakfast eaters assigned to skip breakfast

    What did they find? The groups whose habits and routines CHANGED lost the most weight. People who normally ate breakfast but skipped it during the study lost weight. And people who normally skipped breakfast but ate it during the study lost weight.

    This study shows a pretty consistent finding in nutrition research: When people become more AWARE of their eating habits, they get better results—regardless of the specific dietary manipulation. 

Last up, take the chicken out of your gym bag.

This bears repeating: strategically eating protein and carbs immediately before or after a workout probably only makes a difference in the extreme margins, (i.e. you’re a competitive athlete trying to push the limits of your physical capacities.)

While it’s still wise to start and end training with protein and carbs, you probably have a couple of hours on both sides of your workout to reap benefits. Plus, recent data suggests that the total amount of protein and carbohydrate you eat over the course of the day (or better yet, over the course of weeks or months) is more important for body composition and performance than strategically timing nutrients.

What’s the take-away? Your Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance:

There’s no one way, fixed, do-it-this-way-or-you’re-screwed approach. Instead, consider the following questions, first.

  • How MUCH are you eating? If you’re trying to maintain or lose weight, eat until satisfied, instead of stuffed. If you’re trying to gain weight and/or muscle, eat balanced meals and snacks until full.
  • HOW are you eating? Eat slowly and mindfully.
  • WHY are you eating? Eat when you’re physically hungry, rather than when you’re bored, stressed, peer pressured, or triggered by hyper-rewarding foods.
  • WHAT are you eating? It should be minimally-processed proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and plants. 
  • Are you doing all the above, CONSISTENTLY? Aim for 80% consistency with these items before adding more.
  • Only then should you consider…
  • WHEN are you eating? With adherence to the above, you can now experiment with intermittent fasting strategies, macronutrient staggering, or targeted workout nutrition. 

If you need help understanding nutrition, and establishing healthier habits, let’s chat! NIKA Athletics offers nutrition and wellness coaching to help you live a healthier, fuller, longer life.

Schedule a consult here: https://kilo.gymleadmachine.com/widget/bookings/nikaathletics/free-intro

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