Is Meal Frequency and Nutrient Timing Important?

The theory

When we eat a meal, metabolism is raised, this is known as the Thermic Effect of Feeding (TEF). The digestion process of food costs the body energy.

Because of this many have lead to believe that more frequently consumed meals means a higher or raised metabolism throughout the day. This has been popularised in the bodybuilding community leading to consumption 6 to 8 meals per day spaced every 2 to 3 hours apart. This ‘little & often’ approach has been compared with throwing logs on a fire, little and often will lead to a more consistently burning metabolism as apposed infrequent feeding leading to a slower one.

On the other end of the spectrum, Intermittent fasting (also known as IF) is a popular system that has been heavily in the spotlight in recent time. The 5:2 diet (5 days of normal eating and 2 days low calorie eating) and the lean gains (9 hour eating window and a 16 hour fasted window) are two very popular ones.

Nutrient timing refers to when a particular meal is consumed in relation to its macronutrients (carbs or fat usually) make up. The theory behind this is that we should eat according to our internal body clock or circadian rhythm.   

With so many different extremes between eating styles, it is easy to how people can be left uncertain on how to manage their own diet. How many meals should we eat? How often? What should the meals be made up of?

Fat burning meals

Our body is designed to gain energy from the food we eat. Carbohydrates and fat are the bodies preferred source, the body will also use proteins as a fuel source if required; this is usually done during extreme calorie restriction.

If we have a meal that is made up more of fat, yes, this does mean our bodies will use fat as its preferred fuel source, but, this is nutritional fat as fuel, NOT body fat. To lose weight, you must still expend more calories than taken in over the long term. Foods that are high in fat carry a large calorie value and can be easily over eaten.

When I tried the high fat/low carbs experiment, I equaled total calories from when I was consuming a high carbohydrates/low fat diet and it resulted in me constantly feeling tired and weight/fat gain. How could this happen if calories were matched? Because my calorie expenditure went way down, my workouts started to suck, I moved less and I generally felt like shit. This was my personal experience eating this way and of course everyone responds to different macronutrient makeups

Our body is continuously both storing and burning fat simultaneously. It’s the rate of which one is happening more than the other over the long term that will determine body fat gain or loss. When we eat, we’ll store fat from that food, when we are not eating, we will burn fat as fuel.

People want to hear the fact that they’re insulin sensitive, have hormonal issues and need some sort of special treatment as they associate complexity with results. When the truth is it’s more likely that they’re eating too much and are far too inactive resulting in a positive energy balance.

The reality

When it comes to fat loss and weight gain it is important that we look at the big picture. The main and largest contributing factor that governs these two possibilities is TOTAL calories in and calories expended over a sustained period of time.

Eating 2,000 calories across 3 meals (avg. 666 calories per meal) will produce the same amount of TEF as eating 2,000 calories across 6 meals (avg. 333 calories per meal). At the end of the day, it’s the same amount of food.

The word ‘optimal’ gets thrown around in this industry quite a lot, but what is ‘optimal’ may not be practical. What we must look at is the sustainability of these eating styles from person to person that considers the following:

Enjoyability
One of the main reasons people struggle in the long run is that they don’t enjoy the plan. Do you like eating carbohydrates or fat? Do you like eating breakfast? Personal preference should always be considered

Satiety
Eating 6 small meals when dieting can lead to hunger in between meals which can result in eventual bouts of overeating and binge like behaviour. By consuming 3 bigger meals, this can lead to improved fullness and satisfaction which will lead to better adherence to a plan. On the other end of the spectrum, eating 4,000 calories over 3 meals is difficult as they tend to be on the large side, it would be probably more appropriate to eat these over 4 to 6 meals across the day. Intermittent fasting often poses a problem with people that can’t handle hunger very well.

Energy Levels
It’s important to pay attention to how your diet makes you feel. One of my regrets about doing the high fat/low carb plan was I didn’t pay attention to what my body was telling me and tried to push on. If you constantly feel rubbish, tired and your workouts suck, then it’s likely you’re not adequately fueled. Do expect when dieting, especially when getting really lean for it to suck a little

Practical
Does your environment support the ability to consume multiple meals per day? Work, family, social occasions and other commitments can lead to going off plan, and the majority of people just can’t handle going off plan.

Motivation
Is the reason you’re doing this strong enough to support your plan? If you have a goal, you’re going to have to push the boundaries a little so it’s more than likely you’ll have to eat and exercise differently. Everything worth having comes at a cost. If your aim is to lose weight, you’re likely to feel hunger now and then. If you’re aiming to add muscle, it’s likely you’ll struggle to eat all of the food that’s required.

Habits
We are all creatures if habits, and they are the reason we do what we do. Being healthy and fit is more about our subconscious habits than following a diet and training plan. This is why we have skepticism over diet plans, because nothing really changes in the long run. Why is being fit and healthy easy for some and more difficult for others?  It’s because it’s just what they do. It often takes a repetitive conscious act to form it into an eventual subconscious one.

Seeing the big picture

If we take a look at the pyramid below, it’s a fantastic illustration by Eric Helms of the importance of what a diet should look like. The more important things are at the base and the less towards the top.

 
 

Nutrient timing is the second least important behind supplements. In other words, the first three blocks of the pyramid should be prioritised ahead of how often you eat.

Understand, that if your plan A is to consume 4 meals per day evenly spaced across the day but for some reason this is made impossible, then our plan B should be made with the hierarchy of nutrition in mind. You can still hit overall calories at the end of the day; you can still get adequate protein and plenty of nutrient rich food.

If you mess up plan A, you can either really mess it up and hit self destruct (as many do) or step back and look at the larger picture and salvage it by making better choices later or earlier in the day.

Another consideration is to look at your diet from a weekly perspective instead of a day to day. So if you overeat one day you can reduce intake to compensate over the next few days. This is a great way to plan around social occasions and to prevent the feeling of losing progress.

Considerations for those that go to the gym

Ideally we want to enter the gym as fired up as possible. Food doesn’t just help create energy for our sessions but also aids in recovery outside of the gym. Training is a stress, and like any stress, it should be managed correctly, food, as well as sleep provides that support.

I typically recommend that people eat their heaviest carbohydrate based meal around the training window. A large meal 90 to 120 minutes prior to training and something an hour or two post training would be suffice.

For those that train multiple times per day, carbohydrates should be consumed between sessions to replenish glycogen stores. If you train every other day or once per day, there is no need to worry about rushing to fill glycogen stores immediately after training as they will be more than adequately topped up over the meals between your sessions. 

For those that train very early and usually fasted, I recommend having a large carbohydrate meal before bed (yes, you can eat carbs after 6pm). Try having something quick digesting like a banana 30 minutes prior, a coffee or a pre workout may help and drinking BCAAs during the session too.

For those that are interested in building muscle, I would recommend a protein feeding every 4 to 6 hours. You also need to ensure you’re in a calorie surplus, as building tissue requires the materials to do so.

The Verdict

Instead of looking at the differences of each diet, we should look at the similarities:

  1. Protein is usually high (a macronutrient that offers increased satiety, increased TEF, helps preserve vital muscle mass and is more difficult to convert into body fat)
  2. Calories are usually controlled by creating rules (eating windows, low carbs, low fat)

As usual, it comes down to personal preference when it comes to meal timing and frequency. Eat according to when it is convenient for you and based on how that food makes you feel. All of this comes down to experimentation over the long term.

I’d love to give a one size fits all plan, but they never work in the long run. Instead, I urge everyone to start building their own plan.

Here’s my recommendation:

  • Have a goal
  • Make a plan based on the 6 variables I discussed earlier 
  •  Start keeping a food log, whether it’s using a pen and paper or MyFitnessPal. I find logging makes people more conscious and consistent of what they eat, regardless of if they’re aiming for a calorie/macronutrient target or not.
  • Start slow. If that means making one change per fortnight but will eventually lead to a more sustainable overall plan in the long run then so be it.  
  • Regulate food intake and times
  • Think about back up plans to support your goal, write down what could go wrong and the solutions.
  • Be consistent and make an effort
  • Ask for help

My Plan A

I get asked a lot about how I structure my day so here is an example of my typical day. I prefer to go to the gym on a morning or afternoon.

  • 5:30am to 7:30am: Wake up. (dependent on working day). Hydrate with greens mixed with water, cup of green tea and take supplements (creatine, fish oils, multivitamin, vitamin D3)
  • 8am: Meal 1
  • 10am: Possible training or dog walk
  • 12pm to 1pm: Meal 2
  • 2pm to 3pm: Possible training or dog walk
  • 4pm to 5pm: Meal 3
  • 9pm to 9:30pm: Meal 4
  • 10pm to 10:30pm: Bed

Regardless of whether I’m dieting on an estimated 3,000 calories or in a surplus on an estimated 4,000 calories per day, this is how my day is usually structured.

When it comes to food prep, I find simplicity is what makes it more sustainable. In the reality, not every meal you eat will set your world on fire. There needs to be a balance between eating for enjoyment and function when it comes to our goals. The foods I eat are fairly similar for the most part as they correspond with 6 points I made earlier.

Habits are what drive my day, these habits have been built up over several years. Nothing is forced, I don’t have to drag myself to the gym or make an effort to hit my meals.

Thank you

I hope you have enjoyed this, if you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment or message me if you have any thoughts.

Ian
[email protected]