Does it matter WHEN you eat?
Taken from The Smartest Coach in the Room newsletter, written by Alex a Precision Nutrition.
If you focus on your health and fitness at all, you’ve no doubt heard these common claims: 🗣️ Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. 🗣️ Eating carbs in the evening will encourage fat gain. 🗣️ If you don’t eat within a narrow window after your workout, your muscles won’t get “fed.”
Hurry! Inhale some protein! The anabolic window is closing! But are these actually TRUE? Let’s explore: Can you enhance either fat loss or muscle gain by eating at specific times in your schedule?
First: Eat when you’re hungry. For most people and clients, common sense rules: Regardless of the time of day, eat when your body tells you it’s hungry. For many of us, that feels like a gnawing emptiness in the belly, maybe accompanied by some grumbly acoustics. Some people get lightheaded or “hangry.” For others, it simply feels like an “opening of the appetite.” Either way: Unless you’re trying to achieve specific and extreme body composition outcomes, listen to hunger. 👉🏾 Eating enough calories is the first and most basic priority of good nutrition. Chrononutrition matters… but only a teeny bit. Research shows that chronutrition—or timing nutrients—does actually make a difference. But for regular folks, only marginally. In a 2022 study at Duke University, participants with “normal” or slightly overweight BMIs were tracked to see how successful they were at maintaining a 25 percent calorie deficit. Researchers also analyzed if results differed when participants ate the bulk of their calories in the earlier part of the day, or in the later part of the day. At the end of two years, participants who maintained a calorie deficit were the most likely to have lost weight. But participants who ate most of their calories earlier in the day were *slightly* better at maintaining a deficit, and lost *slightly* more weight. How much more? Well, although the difference was statistically significant, in practical terms, it amounted to less than a pound. (After TWO years!!)
Breakfast or nah? Many people just feel better when they eat a balanced meal in the morning; it helps them regulate appetite throughout the day. But others swear that fasting in the morning is the key to leanness. A study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition offers some interesting insight into the breakfast and weight loss question. Researchers broke people up into four groups: 🍳 Habitual breakfast skippers assigned to eat breakfast 🍽️ Habitual breakfast skippers assigned to skip breakfast 🍳 Habitual breakfast eaters assigned to eat breakfast 🍽️ Habitual breakfast eaters assigned to skip breakfast The results? The groups whose habits and routines CHANGED lost the most weight. People who normally ate breakfast but skipped it during the study lost weight. And people who normally skipped breakfast but ate it during the study lost weight. This study shows a pretty consistent finding in nutrition research: 👉🏻 When people become more AWARE of their eating habits, they get better results—regardless of the specific dietary manipulation. Take the chicken out of your gym bag. Again, strategically eating protein and carbs immediately before or after a workout probably only makes a difference in the extreme margins. (You’re a competitive athlete trying to push the limits of your physical capacities.) While it’s still wise to bookend training with protein and carbs, you probably have a couple of hours on both sides of your workout to reap benefits. 👉🏽 Plus, recent data suggests that the total amount of protein and carbohydrate you eat over the course of the day (or better yet, over the course of weeks or months) is more important for body composition and performance than nutrient timing strategies. Your Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance All this to say: There’s no one, immutable, do-it-this-way-or-you’re-screwed approach. (When is there ever?) Instead, consider the below questions, first. How MUCH are you eating? ✅ Recommendation: If you’re trying to maintain or lose weight, eat until satisfied, instead of stuffed. If you’re trying to gain weight and/or muscle, eat balanced meals and snacks until full. HOW are you eating? ✅ Recommendation: Eat slowly and mindfully. WHY are you eating? ✅ Recommendation: Eat when you’re physically hungry, rather than when you’re bored, stressed, peer pressured, or triggered by hyper-rewarding foods. WHAT are you eating? ✅ Recommendation: minimally-processed proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, and plants. Are you doing all the above, CONSISTENTLY? ✅ Recommendation: Shoot for 80 percent consistency with these items before moving on. Only then consider… WHEN are you eating? ✅ Now you can experiment with intermittent fasting strategies, macronutrient staggering, or targeted workout nutrition. For elite athletes, figure competitors, or weight-classed pros looking to maximize every fraction of muscle gain and whittle off every lipid droplet of fat, yeah, nutrient timing counts. But only once they have the other—and much more important—aspects of eating in order first. And that’s where most of us should focus.