“They say I’ll get fat if I eat carbohydrates at night.”
“People say to eat oatmeal and fruits in the morning because they’ll give me more energy throughout the day.”
“You need to eat lots of carbohydrates during the day so you don’t lose muscle.”
Again, more conventional wisdom. But like most of the questions I address on here, it’s another contentious issue. Meal timing is one of those things that people feel intelligent talking about but rarely get right. Hell, I am not one to talk, but at least I know one thing:
Meal timing probably doesn’t really matter for a vast majority of people. What matters is how much you eat per day, what you put in your mouth, and whether you’re meeting macro- and micronutrient needs. If you’re not paying attention to these things, then don’t worry about when to eat carbohydrates and if you should avoid combining fats with carbs, yadda yadda yadda.
On the other hand, meal timing can be appropriate for some of you. If you fall within one of these categories below, you may benefit from a more detailed meal timing approach.
- You are a high level and elite athlete.
- You train more than once a day. This is fundamentally different than doing cardio in the morning and doing lifting in the evening, and is usually reserved for those wanting to compete in a sport.
- You are beyond the ‘general fitness’ recommendations and are looking for an edge. You have decent body composition and want to increase the pace at which you progress. For example, if you are below 15% bodyfat, you may benefit from a more detailed approach.
Just because there are 6 donuts don’t mean you get 6 meals. Source
My nutrition philosophy is a three-pronged. However, I am not trying to re-invent the wheel; merely sending the message through a different perspective and medium. Before we move into meal timing, let’s cover what the other two points of the triangle are:
- Clean up the quality of your food. Strive to make the best possible food choices by eating single ingredient foods most of the time.
- Eat for your activity levels. Frequency, type, and goals often determine diet composition. Endurance runners will not eat the same as general fitness folks.
What about those who are not elite but want to be better than average?
Let’s get one main thing straight. Dieting and eating should not be complicated. After all, you eat to survive (or to perform, your choice) so something instinctive and required should not be as complicated as rocket science. And even if you want to be above average, nutrition and meal timing still doesn’t have to be needlessly complicated. The key thing to keep in mind in regards to meal timing is that you want to make sure you time your meals appropriately in accordance with the length, time, and intensity of your activity.
This is the face of awesome. Source
In order to be like a superhero, you must first get down the basics, which are figuring out what to eat and why to eat. To be average and not become a slouch like over 30% of Americans, focus on single ingredient foods and eat less junk. For example, eat more vegetables and non-bastardized meats and less soda. If you’ve never touched a weight in your life (I mean a real weight–not the 5 pound dumbbells that you use for your overhead presses), your conditioning sucks, and you’re one French fry away from breaking your scale, then these two changes will go pretty damn far. At this point, you don’t need to worry about meal timing.
If you workout like an average person, maybe do the treadmill 2 times a week and some weight lifting that wouldn’t make my grandmother sweat, you will probably eat anywhere between 75-150g of carbohydrates. That’s about it. But we are not here to be average. I generally focus on two things for those looking to become better than average. Even for those at a higher level, these methods work well. These are not listed in priority.
- Meal timing
- Daily carbohydrate timing
- Peri-workout nutrition (future post)
This is the most general of the three and probably makes the most sense if you really think about it. Let me pose a question to you: if you are on a diet of 1800 kcals, do you think eating 1800 kcals at one sitting will have the same effect on you as eating 1800 kcals spread over several meals? Don’t fail on me. In terms of effects, the answer is no and I hope this is what you answered. Now, there are instances in which people can get away with eating 1800 kcals at one sitting (Ori Hofmekler’s The Warrior Diet), but I don’t see this as sustainable, and for hormonal purposes, not ideal.
This is Ori. Great shape for his age; but not everyone should eat like him. Source
In contrast to what I said above, a study just came out this year that showed two meals to be superior to six for type 2 diabetics. The difference wasn’t huge–2-3 pound difference, but it was significant enough. The two-meal-a-day group also experienced other beneficial health effects–lower fat mass, blood glucose, blood glucagon, and C-peptide (6). For some, two meals is a bit on a low side, but it is also the lowest I will go. Six meals, on the other hand, I feel is unnecessary, unless you are a competitive athlete and have inordinate caloric needs (north of 4000 kcals) and find it extremely difficult to fit in all of your calories in 3 or 4 meals.
Spreading out your meals provides a steadier stream of nutrients for your body, especially on a training day. As much as I advocate extending fasting, I am wholeheartedly against evening fasted training. There is never a time when you should fast for the whole day then go train. Ever. That segues well into the next point.
I am a huge proponent of short, daily intermittent fasting and have been for years. Fasting has been around for a very long time. Fasting is associated with cleansing both spiritually and physically (think religious and cultural practices, like Ramadan). Biochemically, though, fasting is linked to longer life, better brain function, and better lean mass retention in primates. Studies done in humans show that fasting and restricting carbohydrates intermittently throughout the week yield better insulin sensitivity and body fat loss than traditional caloric restriction in the short-term (1). Now, Ramadan is very similar to the Warrior Diet discussed above in that Muslims eat one time per day, in the evening, within a very small time frame. However, Ramadan happens once a year for a month, so Muslims are not really doing this type of fasting all year around. Not surprisingly, my clients who practice Ramadan drop anywhere from 8-15 pounds in a month.
Want to know something more fascinating? My Muslim clients who come back from fasting and resistance train along with a sensible diet see some of their best gains in strength, fat-loss, and muscle mass.
(This is called reverse dieting in the flexible dieting world, which I will discuss in the future).
Unlike normal fasting practices and those found in mainstream (cayenne pepper and lemonade diet? No thanks), I advocate shorter daily fasts. For most people, I lay out a plan of 12-16 hour fasts for 5 days and 16-18 hour fasts for 2 days. Meal composition should not really differ between the days; only the amount of calories. I will start talking about intermittent fasting (IF) in the future, since there is so much controversy surrounding it. (I will leave this piece about IF: I am about 8% bodyfat and my wife is about 15% bodyfat while on an IF plan, all while experiencing no negative side-effects. We have been IF’ing for about two years).
Avoid extended fasting on training days.
So my philosophy for meal timing is thus:
1. 2-5 meals per day, depending on your schedule.
2. Fast for 12-16 hours 5 days out of the week and 16-18 hours 2 days out of the week
Daily Carbohydrate Timing
The same way that eating manipulating calories throughout the day has different effects on the body, so does carbohydrate timing. I am always for unconventional wisdom, because frankly, conventional wisdom fails the person looking to become better miserably. You need something more than cereal, fruits, and a couple slices of deli meats. You need carbs (the right sources, obviously) and you need to time them right. Now when it comes to carbohydrate timing, you want to eat the bulk of your carbohydrates in the evening.
Yes, you heard that right, in the evening.
An example of a lovely dinner. Pork belly, white rice, pickled radish, kimchi, red leaf lettuce… don’t forget the beer.
***I hope my bold statement up there was a bit liberating for you to know that you will not get fat if you eat carbs in the evening as long as you control for total calories. Remember that this is not a ticket to currently eat what you are eating and then add carbs at night. This is especially true if you got fat or getting fatter with the way you are eating right now.
Why in the evening? Well, the research is new and is just starting to come out, but it is promising nonetheless. Some studies show that participants on equal caloric diets but differing meal compositions experienced different results. Those who ate most of their carbohydrates in the evening lost more weight, body fat, retained more lean muscle mass, and decreased their waist circumference (2). The same author did another study that showed that a low-calorie diet with carbohydrates eaten at dinner time prevented mid-day hunger and improved hormonal profiles compared to a traditional low-calorie diet (3).
Unfortunately, Dos Equis is a terrible beer and you shouldn’t drink it, regardless of time of day. Source
What should you eat for breakfast?
What’s left, are the other two nutrients: protein and fats. I have especially found that a high-protein breakfast with a moderate amount of fat holds me over very nicely for several hours. Many of my clients feel the same way. And if you ever heard me recommend bacon and eggs for breakfast, it is for good reason.
One particular study showed that postmenopausal women who choose to avoid carbs in the morning have better control over their hunger (4). For those who want to lose weight, better hunger control equals better results (though I wouldn’t recommend eating bacon and eggs day-in and day-out–don’t forget the vegetables and quality starches). This study is certainly applicable as postmenopause is a condition that throws female sex hormones into disarray and makes losing weight, especially the belly fat, more difficult.
Another study showed that adding two eggs to breakfast 5 days a week for 14 weeks led to a reduction in daily carbohydrate intake, which can be beneficial if you are a controlled carbohydrate intake. The kicker to this mentioned study is that those who ate eggs experienced no adverse change to their blood lipids (7).
Training, of course, confounds how you should time carbohydrates. Research by Dr. John Ivy, author of Nutrient Timing, ushered in a whole new era of nutrient timing research in the early 2000’s, showing that carbohydrate consumption around exercise, especially post, was much more effective than consuming all of your carbohydrates in the meals before exercise (8). With this in mind, you would consume most of your carbohydrates after training. We will go more in-depth with carbohydrate timing in the future.
So my philosophy of carb timing is thus:
- Eat most of your carbs at night, preferably after training.
- If you train in the morning or day, then eat carbs after training.
Here is how I do it. Remember that my goal is to slowly gain some size while keeping body fat the same.
10AM, meal 1: 50g whey protein shake with a serving of kelp, 1 tbsp chia seeds, 1 tbsp maca root powder in 16oz unsweetened, plain almond milk, 1 tbsp fish oil, small handful of macadamia nuts
1PM, meal 2: 40g of protein through turkey bacon with handful of mix nuts; 5 soft-boiled eggs and 3 cups of broccoli florets in lemon juice, parsley, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes
4PM, meal 3: 50g whey protein shake with 1 tbsp. fish oil, handful of carrots
7PM, meal 4: 7oz canned, bone-in salmon, lemon juice, chopped spinach, 1 cup of oatmeal , and all-purpose tomato sauce
10PM, meal 5: Half a rotisserie chicken with stone ground mustard, kimchi, 2 cups or white rice or 3 baked potatoes
Comments? Questions? Drop a line.
1. Harvie M, et al. The effect of intermittent energy and carbohydrate restriction v. daily energy restriction on weight loss and metabolic disease risk markers in overweight women. Br J Nutr. 2013 Oct;110(8):1534-47.
2. Sofer S, et al. Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. Obesity, 2011 Apr 7.
3. Sofer S, et al. Changes in daily leptin, ghrelin and adiponectin profiles following a diet with carbohydrates eaten at dinner in obese subjects. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2013 Aug;23(8):744-50.
4. Acute Satiety Effects of Sausage/Egg-based Convenience Breakfast Meals in Premenopausal Women