This article is fantastic for breaking down some of the different aspects of nutrient timing. Some of the myths and some of the things you have heard your whole life: you better eat your breakfast!!!
What the article underscores is that if you are not an endurance athlete or a body builder, but just someone who is trying to maintain or lose weight in a sensible typical manner by eating whole, unprocessed foods and getting some exercise, you *really* don’t need to worry about nutrient timing. Whew…thats a relief!! BUT the article also underscores the need for you to experiment and figure out what works for you because ultimately…everyone is different.
I’m about to use myself as an example, which is not scientifically significant as I am a data point of one, but the truth of the matter is that no volume of scientific journal articles will really tell you about YOU and how YOUR body does best with its own food timing. Journal articles can give a place to start, but ultimately if eating a certain timed way makes you feel the best, chose the best food for your body the most frequently and supports your level of activity then that is the right meal timing strategy to chose. Some people need to eat more frequently, some need to eat less frequently. There really is no wrong or right about meal timing, but what ultimate nutrient timing is best for you is whatever timing strategy that supports you choosing healthy, whole, unprocessed meals majority of the time. As far as meal timing, I may not be the best case study as a former endurance athlete and currently in training for kettlebell sport. But one thing I can provide insight into is that at any given time what your body needs may change. You need to be always adjusting and challenging what works and what doesn’t work for YOUR body because ultimately it will give you the best feedback overall of what really is working.
Here is my story of exploring meal timing:
Back in 2000 I visited my first nutritionist because I realized I had gained some weight and needed to lose about 20lbs. First thing she did…put me on a 6 meals a day plan. One thing I found helpful about eating more frequently is that for me it helped me not eat so much at my main meals. I also started food logging. So…were lots of little meals the right choice? Or was logging my food? I don’t know but the combination did work for me at that time and I lost some weight.
Then I went to grad school and meal timing became somewhat non-existant. I don’t actually recall what I did most of the time. I just remember it being stressful. The last 10 months got extremely stressful and I gained 20lbs. No bueno. What ever I was doing, didn’t work for me…at that time. This was most likely because the last 6 months I hardly exercised. Your body can’t distinguish between ‘good’ stress like exercise and bad stress like writing a dissertation. There is a limit to the amount of cortisol load from stress that a body can handle. I was so stressed out I remember running a mile and it just being too freakin hard to do.
Then I graduated, moved and got into endurance sports, found a new nutritionist and got a little freakish about meal timing…exercised a lot…lost 18lbs of fat…gained 10lbs of muscle while endurance training. Since I was endurance training, nutrient timing IS suggested and it definitely worked for me…at that time.
Then in 2010 my body had enough of all this high volume endurance stuff and I got mysteriously sick, which was diagnosed as possible overtraining syndrome. After I got sick, I don’t remember what I did for food at that time, but it felt like I didn’t eat much but magically gained 15lbs. Guess what ever I was doing didn’t work for me…at that time.
July of 2010 I discovered kettlebells and the next year I spent falling in love with kettlebells, training for my RKC certification and believing I was eating appropriately, but when it came down to it after 7 months of kettlebell training all I had to show for it was 4lbs of fat loss and 2lbs of lean muscle gain. At the time I was still in ‘endurance training’ mindset and still eating 5 meals a day because that was what I was used to doing. Since I was training pretty hard for the RKC my food intake supported all of my training so I got a lot stronger, but I had wanted to drop 15lbs I gained when I got sick in 2010. For me there was nothing magical about kettlebells and fat loss (and in truth 80% of fat loss is what you eat, not what you do) so all of my fussing about nutrient timing really wasn’t working for fat loss at that time.
July 2011 I joined Lean Eating over at Precision Nutrition and discovered a lot of new habits. I discovered that I was eating out of habit and not because I was hungry and I had this idea that being hungry was a bad thing. I discovered I was eating because my scientific brain was telling me I *should* eat but not listening to my body of when I needed to eat. This lead to me taking out my morning snack and eating only 4x a day instead of 5x. When I started to listen to what my body needed and not the idea of I needed a certain number of meals, I started to lose weight. Which worked for me at that time.
1) I was training in the morning before work so working out and then not eating to lunch really screwed up my system even my sleep!
2). I couldn’t focus for the life of me in the morning.
3). It threw me into a crazy afternoon carb craving and I started craving and eating things that didn’t support my goals.
This didn’t work for me…at that time.
Below is the nutritional hierarchy of importance of eating according to PN that you should focus on first before you even worry about meal timing. Once those are squared away and you are doing them consistently…meal timing is a piece of the puzzle to take into consideration, but for most of us it is best to first figure out the How, Why and What we are eating and then possibly start experimenting with the When afterwards with some personal experimentation.
Your nutritional hierarchy of importance
- How much are you eating?
(Recommendation: Eat until satisfied, instead of stuffed, follow PN’s Calorie Control Guide .)
- How you are eating?
(Recommendation: Eat slowly and mindfully, without distraction.)
- Why are you eating?
(Hungry, bored, stressed, following peer pressure, social cues, triggered by hyper-rewarding foods?)
- What are you eating?
(Recommendation: Minimally processed proteins, veggies, fruits, healthy starches, and healthy fats.)
- Are you doing #1 to #4 properly, consistently?
(Recommendation: Shoot for 80% consistency with these items before moving on.)
And only then consider…
- When are you eating?
(Now you can consider breakfast, late-night, during your workout, etc.)
For me I have settled into 4 meals/day. 3 main meals and then a snack in the afternoon. The snack tides me through my evening training so I feel fueled up and not hungry. This works for me…at this time.
That being said, I am challenged by the PN article to try something different. One thing I have learned is that I can’t abandon breakfast because I saw with my ‘leangains’ experiment that it wasn’t helpful for me to skip breakfast, but I’m wondering how my hunger/eating would change if I ate a heavier breakfast? I usually only consume 300-400 calories in the form of a protein shake. I wonder if I ate solid food and ate around 600-700 calories how I might feel differently throughout the day? I know on weekends when I have a big brunch I will eat brunch and then maybe dinner. This could be an interesting experiment…
What kinds of experiments do you think you would like to try?
Eating more (5-6) smaller meals a day?
Eating only 3 meals a day?
Challenge your assumptions and see if you can figure something new about how best your body runs. Give it a try for a month and then see if you see any positive changes.