Meal timing, along with the content of the meal, is often the focus of many weight-loss plans. And in sports, nutrient timing is also believed to provide performance benefits. But who really needs to worry about when to take in their nutrients?
WEIGHT LOSS AND METABOLIC RATE
Meal timing that involves six small meals per day, at three- to four-hour intervals, is said to increase metabolism and aid in weight loss. However, this is one of the biggest urban legends in the wellness industry. There is no difference in your total daily energy expenditure or metabolic rate between three large meals and six small meals per day. People typically lose weight on a six-meal weight loss plan because they have improved their diet and reduced its energy content.
The research exploring meal frequency is a mishmash of pros and cons. Some studies, using six-meals-per-day regimens, have shown improvements in weight loss, whereas others have shown no change. Similarly, one meal per day for weight loss in fasting regimens is touted as producing the best blood sugar level control, which is great for the prevention of diabetes and regulation of hunger.
Urban legends about meal frequency increasing metabolic rate exist because theoretically, this is plausible. When we eat, we increase our metabolic rate due to the thermic effect of food. This means our metabolism increases due to the body expending energy during the digestive process, when food is broken down and metabolized. However, the thermic effect of food is not enough, typically, to offset the amount of calories you have actually eaten.
This is a trap that a lot of dieters find themselves in. When they eat more frequently, it creates more opportunities to eat. With more opportunities, the more you have to practice self-restraint around food. Not only that, a six meal per day regimen means you would have to eat very small meals for weight loss. Grazing throughout the day makes it harder to feel completely full and satisfied during a meal. Our natural hunger and fullness gauge that tells us when to eat and when to stop is lost. For some people, more frequent meals can be their undoing.
The answer to nutrient timing for weight loss is simple: we are all unique and there is no nutrient timing pattern that suits all. It’s more useful to concentrate on developing a natural eating style and consuming nutritious, calorie-controlled meals, rather than worrying about timing. Not everyone wants to lose weight however; people eat for different reasons with different goals in mind. If you have a sports- specific goal in mind, nutrient timing may be far more useful to you.
NUTRIENT TIMING IN SPORTS
Nutrient timing is far more useful, but not the definitive factor, for muscle building and endurance based athletes. Consuming key macronutrients around workouts and timed during sports events can help some athletes perform at their best.
Building muscle is challenging. It takes hard work and consistency in workouts to grow and maintain muscle mass. To get the most out of your workouts, it may be important to time your protein and carbohydrate intake. Historically, research has shown that when creatine, conjugated linoleic acid and protein are consumed within 30 minutes pre- and post-weight lifting, you get the greatest increases in muscle mass. This produces greater benefits to muscle growth than consuming protein alone or at other times.
But it’s now believed the time frame that you have to consume your pre- and post-nutrients is a larger window than 30 minutes. You will still get the same benefits if you consume a post-workout shake up to six hours after you train. This means you have plenty of time to get home and prepare a proper meal containing protein, carbs and healthy fats. Whole foods will provide you with all three key nutrients, without supplementation or specific timing.
It has also been recognized that you maximize muscle recovery and muscle building when you consume protein in frequent intervals throughout the entire day, in 0.7 ounce amounts. If you want to grow big muscles fast, pay attention to adding 0.7 ounces of protein to every meal and consider eating every two to three hours. If you want to take it even further — especially if you are an elite performer — you should have a protein and creatine cocktail very closely timed to your workout.
In the end, any diet with an appropriate amount of protein, carbohydrates and fat for the entire day will have a far greater effect on muscle mass than worrying about drinking your protein shake within 30 minutes. Timing is only really important after you have sorted out the basics of general healthy eating.
Carbohydrate timing for endurance-based sports is beneficial. It has been well-documented that if you want to get the most out of your endurance-based training sessions or races, correctly timing your carbohydrate, fluid and sodium intake is imperative to finishing the race and performing at your best.
A study has shown that consuming at least one ounce of carbohydrates before a short-duration running race can improve performance. This has been shown in both cycling and running groups. If you want to run or cycle faster, get your carbohydrates in 30 minutes prior to the training session or race, to provide your body with the fuel it needs to perform.
Nutrient timing becomes even more important during events lasting longer than 120 minutes. Triathletes, marathon runners and cyclists need to correctly time carbohydrates, fluid and sodium. These three nutrients need to be consumed every 30 to 40 minutes to prevent dehydration and running out of fuel.
The current recommendations for endurance athletes are to consume one-to-two ounces of carbohydrates at 40-minute intervals. Athletes should try to drink 17 fluid ounces of water every hour, along with sodium to match sweat-loss rates. All of this is important to maximizing speed during races.
For the regular gym goer who wants to maintain or lose weight, nutrient timing is irrelevant. You will get far better results concentrating on eating highly nutritious meals that coincide with your natural hunger levels, rather than trying to eat to pre-determined meal times. Nutrient timing is very important to competitive athletes in select circumstances — as it can make or break a competition or training session — but for the everyday athlete, ensuring that your general nutrition is spot on is far more important. Most people don’t eat a healthy diet, and in these cases it’s better to concentrate on improving your whole diet than focusing on details like nutrient timing.