This post is all about meal timing and frequency!
How much should you eat and when??
When YOU want to!
Did I say that right?? You bet.
Every couple years, the “science” changes up when we should eat our meals. Growing up until about 5-6 years ago, it was the usual 3 meals/day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Then a couple studies came out suggesting we’re more likely to lose weight and benefit from 6 meals/day (breakfast, pre-lunch, lunch, pre-dinner, dinner).
So what is right? Are their benefits for one over the other? Yes. Consequences? Yes there are. I’ll break both of them down.
Fewer meals: In this approach, you only eat 2-3 meals in a day. These meals are going to be a lot bigger (maybe close to 700 calories with each meal).
Who should take this approach? Anyone who is more comfortable eating fewer, but larger meals in a day. This could be because you simply aren’t hungry as much during the day. Maybe you wake up and don’t eat a breakfast until 11-12. Eating 6 meals within an 8-hour window is pretty difficult, so it’s best not to force that lifestyle. Instead opt for those large, filling meals. This is also perfect for people who have busy schedules that doesn’t allow them to stop what they’re doing and sit down and eat 6 times/day. This is the perfect approach for our crazy friends who “forget to eat”… something to this day I have never done!! However, it is very common.
Tons of meals: In this method, we’re eating closer to 5-6 meals/day. These meals are going to be much smaller (maybe only 300-400 per meal).
Who is this approach for? Anyone who experiences hunger more often during the day. This is for people who struggle with binges or cravings, huge energy drops 2-3 hours after eating, hanger, and blood sugar crashes. This is also a good approach for our early risers because your day is typically a lot longer and starts so early. I know when I have to coach in the mornings, my day starts at 4:45 and doesn’t end until 8:30. This is roughly a 15-hr day… for me, only having 2-3 meals within 15 hours is just impossible no matter how big these meals are. However, when I can sleep in and slow my morning down, I’m eating within a smaller window.
What differs is the breakdown and quantity at each meal. What doesn’t change is your DAILY intake. This is important. Just because you choose 2-3 meals/day, doesn’t mean you HAVE or GET to eat less. Just because you choose more meals in a day doesn’t give you the excuse to binge out at each meal. This is why meal timing and frequency isn’t the most important thing in the world. In fact, if you look at the pyramid below, meal timing/frequency is only implemented once we've got calories, macros, and micros as our foundation. If you have quantity and quality (i.e. calories and adequate macro-breakdown) down, then meal timing is just optimization with you and your schedule. Eating 6 meals/day is not going to get you ripped if you’re eating 5,000 calories/day. Vice versa, eating 2 meals/day is also not going to work when you’re eating 1,000 calories.
Why is meal timing important then? Our goal when we are setting up our meal timing and frequency is to avoid those energy crashes due to hunger and low blood sugar. Some people don’t experience these feelings except 8-10 hours after eating, therefore, they don’t need to eat as frequently. Some people (usually with quicker metabolisms) are fatigued, irritable, and crashing 2-3 hours. They have blood sugar drops more frequently and therefore require more meals in a day with fewer hours in between. When our blood sugar drops and is low for a sustained period of time, our body senses that it is in a stressed state. What does our body do when it is stressed? It produces cortisol. Cortisol is our stress hormone that gives us the adrenaline to pick up a car on fire to save a person or to fight off a bear. It is also the hormone that wakes us up in the morning or keeps us awake the night before exam finals. However, when dysregulated due to chronic stress, it just wreaks havoc—it disrupts our sleep by releasing adrenaline and preventing the release of melatonin, tanks our hormone levels, stops recovery and muscle synthesis, etc. If we let our blood sugar stay low too long, we allow the rampant release of cortisol, which is detrimental to the goals we are striving to achieve.
How do you space out your meals? Preferably so that your meals are evenly dispersed throughout the day. If you’re a 2-3 meal person, maybe you eat every 5-6 hours: breakfast before work, lunch at 12pm, and dinner at 6pm. If you’re a 5-6 meal person, you’re eating every 2-3 hours consisting of the same main meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner), but you’re incorporating mid-morning and mid-afternoon meals/snacks plus maybe a post-dinner snack/treat.
Now the last question, what if you work out? This does change things slightly because you have to organize your meals around your training—okay, well you don’t have to—BUT if you want to actually recover and not be sore all the time so you can actually make some gainz and see results from working your a** off, then I suggest you adjust your meals for your training. Typically, you should eat 2 hours before your workout, at most 3 hours and as little as 1 hour before. A future post will go into more detail about pre- and post-workout nutrition including macro breakdown, but this will give you some basics. Your post-workout meal, meaning your full meal (with protein and carbs) and not just your post-workout protein shake, needs to be about an hour post-workout and a max. of 2 hours post-workout. This is where our “6-mealers” have an advantage because they eat more frequently and therefore all they need to do is adjust the macros of the meal pre-training. Our “3-mealers” typically have to add a pre-workout snack. Let’s take a typical person who works 9-5 and eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner at 8am, 12pm, and 7pm respectively, and works out at 5:30pm after work. Their 12pm lunch is digested and will not fuel them for a workout 5 and a half hours later. Pre-workout meals provide fuel and energy for workouts, usually by the increase in blood sugar. That blood sugar response is gone 5 and a half hours later. These people typically need to add a snack around 4-5 before training. To make it easy on them, it doesn’t have to be anything big. A Kind bar, Rx bar, 2-3 rice cakes, to-go apple sauce, etc. contain about 20-30g carbs to get that blood sugar response without filling your stomach and making you feel sluggish. Note: pre-workout alone IS NOT adequate fuel. It gives you adrenaline which gives you mental energy to workout but it doesn’t provide the FUEL for your actual body to get through a workout. Also, pre-workout before an evening workout will still be in your system by the time you’re going to bed and will therefore prevent a restful sleep allowing you to recover. If you only take pre-workout and not an actual food and you train in the evening, I suggest trying a week with the other method and see the difference.
Hopefully this provides some insight into when YOU should eat and how often.
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