A few years ago I used to believe strongly that meal timing was crucial! I would eat 6 -8 meals a day believing that I was ‘stoking’ my metabolism.
I believed that these frequent meals would ‘boost’ or ‘rev up’ my metabolism and lead me to burn more calories overall.
I was also very concerned about ‘starvation mode’ and that if I did not eat enough, often enough, my metabolism would slow down, my body would panic and start to store body fat!
This is not true.
Meal frequency and meal timing does not really matter a great deal in the overall scheme of things.
It has been shown that eating regularly can help with overall well being.
There is also growing evidence that eating during daylight hours is better than eating at night.
I have done a podcast on ‘Chrono-nutrition’ with Alan Flanagan, where we discuss this, so please take a look if you’re interested – Flat White Episode 24.
The age old saying that ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ is not true and if you are not hungry at that time of day, then there is no point in making yourself eat.
Eating for the sake of it at any time of the day or night should be avoided.
When considering a meal plan, the first thing to do, is look at when you prefer to eat and how do you prefer to eat. Along with what fits into your lifestyle, your work and your leisure.
Do you prefer to eat larger meals and have longer periods in between, or do you prefer to graze more, spreading your food out more fully over the day?
These are things to figure out for yourself.
Does it suit you to have a large breakfast, skip lunch or have a light lunch and then have a larger dinner?
Do you prefer to get up and get out, making a start on your day without thinking about food? I
t is all about what fits in with your hunger and your lifestyle.
This is why strict meal plans, given to you by other people, do not work in the medium term. There is no route for you to follow afterwards and if the layout of the plan doesn’t suit your lifestyle or your hunger cues then it is not going to work in the short term either!
Build a basic meal template that suits you. Look at the total amounts you should be eating over a 24 hour period, depending on whether you are trying to lose weight, maintain your weight or even gain weight.
Then break those amounts down into a loose meal plan, don’t be over-rigid or you will set yourself up for failure.
Instead of saying an omelette for breakfast, say ‘I will have some protein and carbohydrates equal to such and such a value’
Make it flexible so that you can easily adapt it. For example, if you are not hungry at the time you have scheduled a meal, you can skip it, or leave it till later, or amalgamate the amounts into another meal.
If you are trying to lose weight then you definitely do not want to be eating just because it’s ‘time to eat’ and you may want to save calories for another day.
Remember, your energy needs fluctuate on a day to day basis anyway, depending on your activity levels and other less obvious things like the weather! So it is not that odd that your hunger levels fluctuate also.
Eating when you are hungry seems like an obvious thing to do, but pay real attention to your hunger.
Imagine it on a scale of 1 to 10 and eat when you are at around a 5 or 6. Don’t let yourself get too hungry! Stop eating when you are around 80% full, don’t keep going until you clear your plate.
If you are trying to gain muscle then you may well have to eat a little beyond feeling full but don’t overdo it and risk gaining fat.
Around 4 to 6 meals a day is optimum for muscle gain, along with protein every 2.5 – 4 hours to hit the leucine threshold for muscle growth.
If you would like more information on that then please do look it up on PubMed.
The other area in which food timing can be more important is pre and post workout. You want to have fuel ready for your workout, both stored and readily available for use.
You also need to be fueling your body for recovery after your workout, there is really no need to go for expensive, specific ‘post workout’ products.
Pre-workout you should be having some protein and some carbohydrates between 1 and 3 hours before. If you are eating well beforehand then something slower release like chicken and sweet potato is fine.
If you are eating quite close to your workout time then go for something faster release like a whey protein shake and Soreen, banana or dried fruit.
Post workout you should be following the same rules, within 1 to 3 hours of workout you want to be having some carbohydrates and some protein. You do not necessarily have to be taking shakes, it can just be one of your regular meals.
So, think about your lifestyle, your workouts, your sleep schedule, about when you personally like to eat, what suits you and your family life and base your plan around those things.
There is evidence that having a regular pattern of eating can be good for overall health, but you can decide what that regular pattern is going to look like for you.