Diet and NutritionWeightlifting

How Often Should You Eat? When Should You Eat?

Meal Frequency and Timing

MEAL FREQUENCY AND TIMING

If you’ve been keeping up with the past few posts, I started at the base of the weight loss pyramid with calories, continued through macros and touched on micros. This post will cover meal frequency and timing. One part of this discussion is intermittent fasting, which I wrote a more detailed post about.

Broken down to the most basic level, meal frequency and timing is when and how often you eat your meals. Ultimately, when you eat your meals comes down to your personal preference. I once employed the “always eating” meal frequency; it didn’t work out too well.

always eating
The human version of “always eating” is not this cute

MEAL FREQUENCY

I’ll discuss different meal frequency scenarios, ranging from one meal a day to six or more meals a day, and lay out the advantages and disadvantages of each. Keep this mantra in mind:

“The best diet is the one you can stick to”

That’s all it comes down to. Find what works for you, and tailor your plan around that.

One Meal Per Day

This scenario is not for the weak-hearted and definitely takes some getting used to. I tried this set up for about six months and enjoyed it up until the end. For me, fasting around 24 hours – that’s only eating dinner – was hard to sustain.

Benefits

  • Less time spent planning meals
  • Large number of calories saved to enjoy at the end of the day
  • Can focus on making just one epic evening feast
  • Health benefits of a longer fast
  • Works well with a social lifestyle and frequent dining out

Drawbacks

  • May feel like forever and lead to constant thoughts about your next meal
  • Somewhat restrictive of spontaneous social meals
  • Hard to get enough calories in
  • High calorie, less nutrient dense foods are often preferred
  • May feel uncomfortably full after dinner
  • Eating a large feast takes a long time 
food baby
I often felt like I was about to give birth after eating my one meal per day.

Six or More Meals a Day

Traditional bodybuilding advice has you eating around six small meals a day to keep a constant inflow of nutrients to your body. This may work for some people. Obviously, being one who practices IF, this plan doesn’t work for me.

Benefits

  • Above mentioned constant stream of nutrients to body
  • Many enjoy the “snack life”
  • Must meal plan, which means more control of choosing foods and nailing macro goals

Drawbacks

  • Less freedom of food options
  • Longer lengths of time spent mail planning and prepping
  • Small meals are less satisfying (Remember that chipmunk above? Yeah, that’s what this is like.)
  • Less forgiving for a social life
  • Always in fed state; no benefits from fasting
  • Easy to overeat (I would always “just have a few more” at each meal. This can really make the calories add up.)
sad 6+ meal eater
It’s hard to maintain a flourishing social life while meticulously eating six or more meals a day.

Optimal Meal Frequency

For most people, the optimal amount of meals is two or three. I eat two: a smaller lunch and a bigger dinner. Obviously, a lot of people want to eat breakfast, but I highly recommend reading this and trying out intermittent fasting.

MEAL TIMING

Meal timing is when you eat your meals. The less frequently you plan your meals, the more flexibility you will have with meal timing; with six or more meals a day, there are fewer variations you can create. While meal timing is, again, ultimately up to personal preference, things get more interesting when you pair it workout timing.

Post-Workout

Meal timing can be broken up into two time periods: Pre-workout and post-workout. The length of each depends on when you like to work out. Some people like to get up at the crack of dawn and hit the gym; I’m a huge fan of the snooze button so… that ain’t me. Others prefer to work out at lunch hour or after work, which is more my speed.

not today Mr. Alarm Clock
Nah, I’m snoozing for another hour. Chill out, Mr. Alarm Clock.

Either way, it is more beneficial to get the majority of calories post-workout. To make a long scientific story short: After you work out, your muscles are primed to soak up nutrients from food.  After your workout you are in a time called the anabolic window. This is when your muscles want to be repaired and it’s most beneficial to feed them. Having a smaller lunch, working out and then eating a large post-workout dinner is a pretty effective strategy to take advantage of hungry muscles.

pickle jar
If you start eating a higher percentage of your daily intake post-workout, you won’t have to ask your mom to open the jar of pickles!

Pre-Workout

Pre-workout nutrition is less important. I’ve trained while completely fasted and felt normal, even a bit stronger at times. I’ve tried having lunch several hours before and then a small snack closer to the workout, and that works for me too.

The two main reasons why pre-workout meals should be kept smaller are:

  1. A smaller proportion of calories will be stored as fat, since the majority are coming after your workout and thus being sent to muscles. A small meal before also gives your body a nice supply of energy to crush your workout
  2. Working out with a full belly sucks. I hate being full during a workout, and this sometimes deters me from going to the gym at all. It’s not a good excuse, but I’m human too.

You don’t need to push all of your calories to post-workout or chug a protein shake immediately after working out. This is just another strategy to maximize your efforts in the gym that can be easily included into your everyday life.

How many meals a day do you eat? Do you take into account the timing of your meals in relation to your workouts? If you enjoyed this post or have any questions, let me know in the comments below! Next week I’ll finish the pyramid with the controversial topic of supplements.

2 thoughts on “How Often Should You Eat? When Should You Eat?

  1. So do you think there’s any validity to diets that focus on which type of calories you’re taking like at night vs in the morning? For example, like I’m only a breakfast person when I’m having it with friends, right so, I mainly stick to two meals or some snacks and dinner. When I do though, I like love grapefruit at dinner or pasta or whatever, and I know that there are claims out there that say like ‘don’t eat carbs after 6’ or ‘fruit is too sugary for dinner and really only helpful in the morning’ (eg all over pinterest) …but is there really any validity to the idea that I should change when I eat fruits and carbs if at the end of the day everything comes down to caloric consumption vs expenditure? If that makes sense…

    1. Thanks for the comment Margaret!

      I don’t think there is validity in advice that states eating later causes more fat gain. These claims probably come from the misinterpretation of “scientific” studies where a result is more to correlation than causation. For example, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” stems from the fact that people who eat breakfast usually have better overall health habits and therefore aren’t as overweight. Also, some studies show that people who eat more at night generally over consume calories and therefore will gain weight, so people jump to conclusions and say late night eating/carbs causes weight gain. In fact, when you look at calorie controlled studies, sometimes there is no difference or the opposite is true. People who eat more at night on these studies lose more weight.
      But like I wrote about, there are advantages to eating a higher proportion of carbs after lifting weights since muscles are primed for nutrients. But still its always about calories in vs out in the end.

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