The Hierarchy for Dietary Success: Part 4 - Nutrient Timing & Meal Frequency

Welcome back to the fourth installment of the Hierarchy for Dietary Success series!  If you are just joining us, then I recommend taking a look at Part 1: CaloriesPart 2: Macronutrients, and Part 3: Micronutrients.

During the past three weeks, we have discussed the importance of energy balance (calories), how to figure out the optimal amount of protein, carbohydrates, and fats to consume based on your goals (macronutrients), and the role of minerals and vitamins (micronutrients).  

This week we are going to talk about nutrient timing and meal frequency.  We are going to see, if it really matters when and what you eat for health, body composition, and performance.  


What is nutrient timing?

Nutrient timing simply means eating specific macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats) in specific amounts at certain times, such as before, during, and after exercise.  

Traditionally, nutritionists have spent the majority of their research and focus on energy balance (calories in vs calories out).  As we learned, this is the most important factor when it comes to losing weight or gaining weight.

In the 1980s, researchers and scientists realized the limitations of this approach and started to study the effects of food selection and macronutrient combinations on body composition.  The overarching consensus of these short-term studies showed that having a fast-acting carb and protein or branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) in and around exercise elicited benefits in strength and muscular gains.  With this, the "anabolic" window was born.  

The idea gained even further traction in the early 2000s after the publication of Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition by Dr. John Ivy and Dr. Robert Portman.  I remember almost every strength coach, personal trainer, gym rat, and recreational lifter bringing some kind of carbohydrate and protein concoction with them to the gym.  Better yet, were the guys and gals running home to make sure they had their post-workout shake within that 30 to 60 minute "anabolic window."  All of this in an effort to get leaner, stronger, and healthier.  


is nutrient timing really that important? 

Since the early 2000s, many things have changed.  Remember MySpace? Yep, exactly.

The idea of nutrient timing is one of them.  New research has shed new light on the topic with some profound implications.  The most notable of them being a 2013 meta-analysis (complete review) published by Alan Aragon and Dr. Brad Schoenfeld in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which re-visited the topic of nutrient timing and its perceived benefits.  The review concluded that the majority of people don't need to worry about slamming a protein shake or ingesting a fast-acting carbohydrate immediately after working out.  

So does that mean that nutrient timing is useless and obsolete?  

Absolutely not!  It does mean that nutrient timing isn't particularly important for a recreational lifter who is trying to look and feel better.  

If you are an office worker that goes to the gym for health or aesthetic reasons, then simply making habit based nutritional changes or monitoring your calories and macronutrients is more sustainable and more important when it comes to your diet.  In fact, energy balance, macronutrient intake, and micronutrient intake is all that most people need.  

Now, if you are a professional athlete, bodybuilder or physique competitor, nutrient timing is important.  The difference is that all of these individuals have high levels of caloric expenditure, train multiple times per day, and for events that last for a long period of time.  For these athletes having carbohydrates and protein after a training session can really go a long way in terms of recovery, performance, and health.


what about meal frequency?

For years, registered dietitians, doctors, and nutritionists have stated that the best way to lose weight is to consume multiple small meals throughout the day.  They have recommended that you eat at least 6 to 8 small meals per day because it helps increase your metabolism and curb your appetite  However, is this true?

Meal frequency and metabolism

As we learned two weeks ago, each macronutrient requires different amounts of energy to break down and process it.  This is known as the thermic effect of food, which is the metabolic increase that many nutritionists and dietitians talk about.  

So the key question is does eating smaller meals, but more frequently burn more calories compared to eating larger meals, but less frequently?  

A 1997 meta-analysis done by scientists at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research looked at a multitude of studies comparing the thermic effect of food with meal frequency patterns varying from 1 to 17 meals per day.  The review concluded that in terms of 24-hour energy expenditure there was no difference in total calories burned when eating more smaller meals versus eating less larger meals.  

This review was supported by a 2011 meta-analysis published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which stated that meal frequency does not appear to enhance total energy expenditure or induce thermogenesis in both sedentary and athletic populations.  

So eating smaller meals more frequently does not help with increasing your metabolism and losing more fat.


Common sense would dictate that eating more frequently would decrease your overall appetite between meals.  Is that actually the case?

The answer is quite grey.

On one hand, a 2011 study conducted by the University of Missouri on 27 overweight men found that after 12 weeks of dieting to lose weight, meal frequency did not have an effect on the feeling of fullness or appetite.  However, the amount of protein consumed did increase overall satiety.  

On the other hand, other studies have shown that meal frequency does play a role on making you feel less hungry and more full.  The reason for this variance seems to be more psychological rather than physiological.  The truth is that you should listen to your body when it comes to finding the correct meal frequency to curb your appetite.  Some people do better with less meals and others do better with more meals.  

so how frequently should i eat?

To be honest, as long as you are focusing on good eating habits or are tracking your calories and macronutrients for your specific goal, then meal frequency is a matter of preference.  

You need to find the best fit for you.  

I generally find that those with busier lifestyles tend to do better with larger, but less frequent meals since they don't have the time to nibble on snacks throughout the day.  

Up to now, I realize that we have mainly focused on fat loss, but even when it comes to muscle gain, the literature shows that meal frequency matters less than overall calories and macronutrients.  

key takeaways

  • Nutrient timing doesn't matter for most people.  Unless you are a professional athlete, bodybuilder, or physique competitor.  
  • Focusing on good eating habits or tracking your calories + macronutrients is all you need to look good and feel good.
  • Meal frequency comes down to personal preference.  Eating smaller meals more frequently doesn't appear to decrease appetite nor does it appear to increase fat loss.
  • The most important thing when it comes to diet is finding the best fit for you!