Disclaimer: This blog is intended for the beginner, NOT the advanced gym rat or seasoned fitness buff. When you have several years of successful dieting under your belt you think differently because your circumstances (athletic performance, could be one) are different. This is step one of many to get a beginner to where you are at now. We are just trying to master one thing at a time.
Ok now here we are getting into a bit of finer detail, so much so that I really don’t talk about it as much because, to be honest, it isn’t as important to the majority of people that are looking to drop some body fat.
In the big scheme of having a successful diet, calorie balance is number one and your macro breakdown is number two; so if you were to focus on those two principles right there you will have a GREAT chance of having a successful diet or way of life depending on what your goal is.
Now here is the next question that people ask when it comes down to eating a certain way… how many meals a day should I eat AND what are the best times to eat them?
I’ve read some very silly rules of thumb from the “webgodz” that have ranged from:
– Eat every two-three hours or you will die <=== What about your grandparents that were busting their ass on the farm that lived to be 90 and could still put a butt whoopin on you? They outlived most people and your butt still stings from the wrath of only eating 3 meals a day.
– If you don’t eat after your workout your muscles will shrivel up and your workout was a waste <=== What’s the time limit? 45min? So I hit 46min my workout was a waste? Stoooopid
– You can’t eat carbs at night <=== What about if you switch time zones or if you live in Alaska where its dark months out of the year. Damn they must be screwed
– You can’t eat fat and carbs at the same meal or you’ll get fat <=== So all those times that I had chicken, sweet potatoes, avocado, and veggies is the reason I can’t see my abs? LMAO!!!
– If you only eat two meals a day you’ll go into starvation mode <=== See scary grandpa example above
– Drink your enemies blood after a workout for the best gainz <=== Gross. But I lol’d reading that.
Ok ok, let me be serious here. That was a bit much lol.
Meal frequency and meal timing are next on the equation for having a successful diet, BUT they are NOT as important as you think
In the order of importance of successful dieting its a long third and will only help you about 15%. So for the average person just looking to drop some body fat and get ready for the beach, it’s not as important as say an athlete that is trying to medal or place because at that point, for them, every little bit helps.
Some Meal Timing Guide Lines
I’m going to do something a bit different because meal frequency and timing have a LOT of science that goes into it and I don’t want to overwhelm you. I’m going to do a short Q&A with the most common questions that I get from beginners about this subject, I’ll keep these short and to the point to save you the labor intensive details.
Side Note: One more time, the info below is just for those that need some guidelines or those that need that extra 15%. THESE ARE NOT A MAKE OR BREAK YOU kind of rules if you don’t follow this everyday YOU WILL BE OK. AGAIN YOU’LL BE FINE, you’ll live, you’ll still get the results you are looking for as long as you follow the calorie and macro rules. Too many beginners stress about this part WAY too much.
Question 1: How Often Should I Eat?
The origins of the frequent feeding system came about from the body’s need to have a constant supply of amino acids (what protein is broken down to) for muscle growth or retention. Muscle growth and loss occur slowly over days and weeks (not just one time of the day) and ideally, it needs a constant supply of aminos to pull from to aid in the growth and retention. If we don’t have that constant supply then the body will pull amino acids from the next best source which is other muscles; not beneficial if you are trying to gain or maintain muscle mass.
So with all that said, ideally you should eat at least 4 times a day or about every 3-5 hours.
Side Note: Without going overboard with confusion here YOU CAN eat less or more frequently depending on the protein type, meal size AND carb/fiber composition of your meal. These all have a factor on the rate of digestion that occurs for protein.
Question 2: How Quickly Do I Need To Eat After A Workout?
AHHHHH everyone’s big question. There is actually QUITE a bit of study and literature that have tested out different meal combinations of post workout meals AND timing. A number of studies are so vast that it can be overwhelming to read! So let me break it down to you and give you a few SHORT reasons.
In short… consuming a meal that has protein and is more carb dense (think about 2-3g of carbs per 1 gram of protein) within 30-60min of a hard workout DOES have its benefits!
This meal will replenish the glycogen stores (think of your body’s gas tank here), prevents any unnecessary muscle breakdown, and helps with muscle growth. Trust me there is a TON of other cool stuff that happens here that I’m refraining from unloading on this blog.
Again just know that if you consume a meal that is CARB dense (again think 2-3g of carbs for every 1g of protein) within the hour after your workout you will reap some pretty awesome benefits.
Side Note: If you miss that window IT’S OK! You won’t die, your muscles will still develop and grow and the workout was not wasted.
Question 3: Should You Eat Before Your Workout?
(If so, how soon?)
NOW this one really doesn’t’ have a universal answer for most people because there are studies that say you SHOULD consume a meal before your workout and that meal should ideally have protein, carbs, AND veggies; but from my personal observations I have found that it’s a hit and miss.
Some people NEED to eat before a workout otherwise they get nauseous and others it just MAKES them nauseous and not able to perform well.
So what do you do?
Well, you first need to define HOW soon before a workout, again from my personal observations 3 hours till about 90 min before is ideal.
IF YOU DO EAT before I recommend animal protein, 1g of carb for every gram of protein and a few veggies.
Now for you, early morning peeps that find that you are pressed for time as it is, waking up just to eat a pre-workout meal then going back to bed is just dumb. Just so you can wake up an hour and a half later to work out. I even tried that at one point in time; don’t worry about your pre workout meal you will still have some energy reserves from your previous night’s meal.
Instead just consume a protein shake with some carbs during your workout if you need something.
Question 4: Can I Eat Before I Do Cardio?
(What about fasted cardio?)
Again this all depends on the person.
The studies show there is no real benefit to do fasted cardio (AKA first thing in the morning on an empty stomach) so if that is the only time you can do cardio you’ll be ok.
If you do eat before you do your cardio you’ll be OK. remember at the end of the day/week it’s about that total amount of calories consumed not if you did fasted cardio or not.
Question 5: How Late Can I Eat?
(Do carbs matter?)
I love this question and I have ranted about this over MANY years and some blog post.
Long and short…
You can eat however f—king late you want. Just because you eat when it’s dark doesn’t automatically mean that you’re going to store it all as fat like some kind of weird food vampire.
Why do people tell you not to eat past 6 or no carb past 7? Well, it’s an easy way to eat LESS food! You can eat carbs and food before bed, as long as you stay in your calorie number, and you’ll still have a successful diet.
Hell, I have some client eat very little carbs all day then they work out at night and have a massive carb meal before bed. They wake up lean and are just getting leaner BECAUSE they are still staying in their calorie number.
(for more info about that take a look at Kiefer’s Carb Back Loading Guide and Carb Nite… warning it’s very cerebral)
There are some people that just don’t like eating late and don’t want to eat carbs at their last meal for personal preferences and that is ok. There is no rule for either or.
Question 6: Should You Eat As Soon As You Wake Up?
Ahhhh the universal “do I need to eat breakfast” meal! I’ve written about this one extensively HERE and HERE (these are older blogs so forgive the typos) but long story short.…
Only if you want to.
Some people are NOT breakfast people, it makes them sick. So don’t eat it if it makes you sick! Think about that for a second; you’re supposed to feel better and healthier, not like you have morning sickness lol.
You may have heard that eating as soon as you wake up jump-starts the metabolism and I can tell you that there is no scientific benefit to your metabolic rate by eating as soon as you get up in the morning.
So don’t feel like you have to eat as soon as you wake up, eat when you are ready.
Side Note: NOW we have written MANY times about the benefits of SKIPPING breakfast (meaning that you don’t have to eat as soon as you wake up) and that for SOME there are some hormonal benefits to it allowing your body to be in a fasted state for a long period of time. This is a practice that I still do but there is a caveat I have discovered; if you are just trying to drop some fat, and look good in your bathing suit or shirtless for summer, this is perfectly fine but if you are trying to medal or win a physique or bikini competition a smart meal one (breakfast) does help with that performance. Again at that point, your goals are different.
Question 7: What about Aminos During a Workout?
From personal experience and observation, I have never really seen a benefit from consuming an amino acid supplement during a workout. The theory is that you need to consume amino acids (building blocks of protein) during a workout to keep your body from excessively breaking down muscle, thus keeping you from a muscle wasting state AND allowing you to replenish amino acid stores sooner.
From the studies, I’ve read the numbers have never supported this nor displayed that taking an amino acid supplement will enhance your workout OR recovery from workouts.
If you’re just starting out spend your money on quality food and don’t worry about buying the supplements.
Starting On Monday
Remember that if you are just starting out and just trying to plan your meals out to don’t stress over it, seriously in the big scheme of things your calorie and macro balance are the first two priorities. Don’t think that you have to eat breakfast and don’t think that you can’t eat carbs a night.
Find a routine that WORKS FOR YOU.
Your body will adapt very fast and soon you’ll know what feels good to you.
Keep it simple. Use a few of these guidelines if they are convenient for where you are at in your process and soon this will become a routine that you don’t have to think about.
In Health and Awesomeness,
Travis Merritt, BS, CPT, (and other cool letters behind the name) is the Owner of Fitness Revolution in Rowlett, TX.
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