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how often to eat for fitness goals, meal timing for fitness goals: fit man eating at the gym

Optimal Eating Schedules For Every Fitness Goal

There are numerous ways to modify your diet to support specific goals. You can alter calorie intake, meal timing, hydration…all sorts of stuff. One factor that fitness-minded folks often focus on is the total number of meals they have per day—and, more specifically, how often they eat. But is this variable really important? There’s a little more to it than meets the eye. Let’s dig in.

Common Ideas About Meal Frequency

Years ago, fitness magazines and experts galore touted that consuming several (think five or six) small meals per day (compared to your standard three) conferred a metabolic advantage, thus helping you shed fat. This idea was based on the concept of diet-induced thermogenesis— the fact that you burn calories to digest, break down, and absorb food. Basically, people believed that the more often you ate, the more calories you burned, and the more easily you lost weight.

Although this idea remains widespread, it hasn’t really held up against the rigors of science. Only one study has supported the notion that meal frequency impacts fat loss; however, numerous others have reported no difference when meal frequency was altered between groups of study participants. 

Another common notion about meal frequency is that more meals equal more muscle. This one is a little more legit. In fact, consuming more frequent meals (think three meals plus one or two snacks) may help improve protein synthesis by increasing overall protein intake and thus help with muscle growth. This is often why gym bros pop protein bars or sip on EAA shakes in between their larger meals throughout the day.

The relationship between meal frequency and your goals isn’t quite that simple, though. Before we get deeper into that, there’s one thing we need to address.

Let’s Talk About Energy Balance

What and when you eat can influence your fitness results, but it’s really small potatoes compared to the elephant in the room: overall energy balance. 

Energy balance simply refers to the balance of calories you take in (from food and drinks) compared to calories expended (from your resting metabolism, everyday activities, workouts, and the like). 

Read More: 8 Daily Habits For Healthy Metabolism

If you’re aiming to lose weight, generally you want to be in a negative energy balance, meaning you burn more calories than you take in. On the flip side, if you want to gain weight or muscle, you should mostly be in a positive energy balance and consume more calories than you use.

Once you’ve identified which side of this scale you want to be on and have your overall intake managed, you can start to hone the details, like macronutrient content and meal timing. But if you get all jazzed about meal timing without thinking about calories, you’re stepping over dollar bills to pick up pennies. Your energy balance will always be the number one determinant of whether or not your diet helps you reach your goals.

Goals and Eating Schedules

Assuming your energy balance is solid, you can now start to fill in variables like meal timing. 

Notice that I’m using the phrase “meal timing” and not “meal frequency.” This is because we’ve learned that specific important points in your day might require and benefit from targeted nutritional intervention. Timing your meals strategically based on certain factors ultimately better serves your goals than deciding to eat a bunch of little meals at random times over a few big ones. 

Here’s a closer look at how to consider when and what to eat, based on your goals.

For General Health

If you’re focused on general health, I would simply recommend consuming enough food to maintain your body weight, assuming you don’t need or want to change it. Instead of planning out a specific meal schedule, follow this advice: If you’re hungry, eat. If you’re not, don’t.

Now, some emerging study reports do suggest that intermittent and/or periodic fasting may be advantageous for promoting longevity, which may be of interest to health-minded folks. The mechanisms behind this unique outcome are varied and complex and we still don’t fully understand them. While a daily 12- to 16-hour fast may be useful for promoting a longer lifespan, I would caution against relying on this tactic alone to support longevity. I still believe that your overall daily calorie intake, activity levels, and stress management are likely more important than whether you cram a couple of massive meals into a few hours of the day and skip meals throughout the rest.

For Weight Or Muscle Gain

If you’re looking to gain weight or put on muscle, you’re probably going to have to be in an energy surplus. One easy way to create such a surplus is to simply eat more often by adding a meal or two to your day. 

Of course, what you choose to eat matters. Research has suggested that consuming protein about every three hours or so might be optimal for maintaining high levels of protein synthesis, which is the process responsible for building muscle.

Read More: I’m A Sports Dietitian And These Are My Go-To High-Protein Snacks

Therefore, if you’re awake for about 16 hours per day, it’s pretty reasonable to cram in three to four meals plus a few snacks to maintain your gains. But beyond this, you should consider protein timing. The more advanced you become in your training, the more important it is to consume protein within a one-hour window following your workout. This is because blood flow—which carries vital nutrients to the muscles for repair—is greatest during and after a workout.  

Another popular tactic amongst many folks seeking muscle mass is to squeeze in one more serving of protein (often in shake form) before bed in an effort to maintain protein synthesis rates for at least part of the night. In the long run, I’m not convinced this is necessary, but it’s always an option if you need one more meal before bedtime.

For Fat Loss

When it comes to losing weight, you first need to design a diet that places you in a negative energy balance. You can also plan exercise and general activity to help shift the balance so that you’re not stuck eating very little and feeling rather hangry all the time.

Read More: Can Too Much Cardio Interfere With Fat Loss?

Research suggests that timing is more important than meal frequency if weight loss is your ultimate goal. One easy trick here is to try and time a decent meal after your workout or your most active part of the day. You see, when you’re in a negative energy balance, your body will burn all sorts of stored tissue for energy. We want this to be fat, but you will likely lose some muscle, as well. To protect against excessive muscle loss, target protein intake around the active periods of your day.

Moreover, I generally recommend consuming protein every three hours or so when focused on weight loss. Ultimately, your goal is to hold on to as much muscle as possible, as doing so will help you better maintain your metabolic rate and exercise performance. And the fun part: The more protein you consume, the more fat you’ll likely lose. It’s a win-win!

For Sports Performance

If someone is trying to enhance sports performance—whether it be for ball sports or something like track and field—and training at least once per day, I generally recommend eating more often and timing meals before and after training. This ensures you’ll have appropriate energy availability for your workouts as well as for nutrient repletion following each session. 

Furthermore, competitive athletes rarely want to dip into a negative energy balance, as that can quickly hamper performance. Eating more often is a potential way to ensure they get more calories overall. For most athletes, I would recommend eating every two to three hours.

Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute, he researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.

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