In this article, I will be busting some old “bro-science” myths and sharing some of the most recent research to set things straight. Today’s topic: meal timing.
MEAL TIMING MYTH #1: ANYTHING YOU EAT AFTER 6PM TURNS TO FAT
It is widely believed that if you eat food, carbohydrates in particular, later on in the evening that it is more likely to be stored as fat because you are not able to “burn it off” during the night. The logic seems to make sense but let’s be a little bit more objective: are 100 calories at 9am still 100 calories at 9pm? Yes, they are. To gain weight/fat you must be in a significant calorie surplus each day/week for a prolonged period of time; changes in bodyweight are determined by your overall energy balance (i.e. Intake vs expenditure). So really when you eat is up to you provided that you meet your calorie and macronutrient goals.
Interestingly, there have been some studies to show that lean (as opposed to obese) individuals who train regularly have a higher metabolic rate during sleep than at rest during the day. Perhaps drifting off into sweet food-fuelled dreams might not be as bad for you as you thought!
MEAL TIMING MYTH #2: YOU MUST EAT EVERY 2-3 HOURS FOR A FAST METABOLISM
Some bodybuilders swear by the 6-meals-a-day rule because they believe that eating smaller meals more often will make their metabolism faster and increase fat loss. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support such a claim. True enough, your metabolic rate does increase when you eat: the thermic effect of food is the small number of calories that you burn just by digesting a meal. However, the number of calories burned is not related to how often you eat but is in fact directly proportional to the total calories and macronutrient ratio. It’s important to note here that protein has a greater thermic effect than the other macronutrients. Therefore, provided that your daily overall calorie and macronutrient intake are the same, the total thermic effect of food doesn’t change. Once again, the way your meals are distributed is down to personal preference.
MEAL TIMING MYTH #3: YOU MUST EAT EVERY 2-3 HOURS TO BUILD MORE MUSCLE
Now things get interesting. This time those thick-skulled meat-heads got it right. Whilst weight loss and weight gain is primarily determined by your overall energy balance, if you’re aiming to build as much muscle as possible then getting your protein on time might make a little difference. When you eat and digest protein, an anabolic (muscle building) response is initiated. Muscle protein synthesis reaches a peak maximum rate before returning to baseline levels around 3 hours later. In order to maintain optimal muscle building conditions you need to keep spiking muscle protein synthesis with regular protein doses throughout the day. That’s all well and good but bear in mind – this robotic diet regime might be “optimal” for maximal muscle growth but in the grand scheme of things it makes such a small difference to your body composition and if it’s not “optimal” for you personally then it won’t work for you.
MEAL TIMING MYTH #4: YOU MUST EAT PROTEIN WITHIN 1 HOUR OF WORKING OUT
The infamous “anabolic window” strikes fear into the very bicep of a bodybuilder and makes them sprint out of the gym to chug a post-workout protein shake or Tupperware meal before they lose their “gains”. This ridiculous rule states that you must get a protein hit within one hour after finishing your workout if you want to maximise muscle protein synthesis. Again, there is no evidence to support this claim and again, when overall daily calorie and macronutrient intakes are equal there is no significant effect on body composition. The only danger of prolonging your post-workout meal is reaching a potentially “hangry” state whereby having depleted your energy stores through exercise, hunger levels increase and consequently have a negative effect on your mood and temperament.
Take home message: the “BEST” diet is the one which you can stick to in the long term. Overall meal timing has little effect on overall body composition so build a meal plan which both allows you to train hard but also live your every day life without restriction.
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