You’re not alone if you find yourself more confused than ever about nutrition. In light of the fact that nutrition scientists don’t even agree on what healthy eating looks like, it can be almost impossible to determine what, when, and how to eat.
This article will help set the record straight by addressing when you should eat. Surprisingly, timing nutrient timing is an area of nutrition that is plagued by misconceptions. You’d think it would be as simple as “eat when you’re hungry” but in reality there are a number of meal timing myths that are causing more trouble than they are worth.
#1: Small, Frequent Meals Fuel Your Metabolism
The recommendation to eat six small, frequent meals is practically the holy grail of the bodybuilding community, but research shows there are some major drawbacks to constantly stuffing your face. The theory goes that eating frequently requires the body to burn more calories digesting and processing food. But recent research has found that eating more meals has no metabolic advantage over eating the standard three meals that normal people eat.
Additionally, a high meal frequency never gives the GI tract a chance to rest. Food-free time is important for gut motility, which occurs once digestion is finished and the muscles of the GI tract stretch and contract, enabling food to progress through the intestines, while at the same time, ensuring absorption of nutrients.
Another problem with frequent meals is that the body is always in storage mode and never shifts to using fat for energy, continuously running on glucose. Frequent meals are also associated with higher blood sugar and insulin, a combination that are linked to diabetes.
The Bottom Line: A lower meal frequency (2 to 4 a day) improves digestion and fat burning, while having no metabolic disadvantage.
#2: Eat Simple Carbs Pre-Workout For Energy
The standard advice to eat simple carbs, such as toast and honey, before working out comes from the faulty belief that what you eat right before exercise will “fuel” your workout. The human body is not a car, running on carbs in the way that a Honda runs on gasoline.
Rather, the energy that powers your workout comes from glycogen, which is a form of carbs that is stored in the muscles and liver. It takes a few hours for the body to digest carbs and synthesize muscle glycogen, so what you eat in the few hours pre-workout doesn’t have much effect. Those carbs will most likely be in your blood stream, which means that if you eat fast-digesting simple carbs, they will spike insulin and blood sugar, reducing the body’s ability to burn fat. You’ll also feel sluggish, which is obviously something that should be avoided.
The Bottom Line: Save simple carbs for after training because the muscles are primed to replenish glycogen and the insulin release will help lower cortisol and improve recovery.
#3: Avoid Carbs At Night Because They Will Be Stored As Fat
This myth probably came from the fact that people often overeat carbs at night, which leads to fat gain. For many people eating is a stress reliever, spiking insulin and lowering the stress hormone cortisol. Studies show that stress stimulates food intake, which makes it easy to overshoot your calorie needs at night, especially if you choose high-sugar, hedonistic food that is rewarding, making you feel good.
But there’s no evidence that simply eating carbs, even simple carbs like dessert, at night increases body fat as long as you avoid an energy imbalance. In fact, there are nutrients in most carbs that raise levels of tryptophan and serotonin, which will improve relaxation and help get you ready for a restful night’s sleep. The key is to eat a balanced dinner
The Bottom Line: Including healthy carbs (sweet potato, fruit, boiled grains) as part of a balanced dinner that also provides high-quality protein and healthy fat can lower stress and improve sleep.
#4: Breakfast Is The Most Important Meal Of The Day
There are many situations when a high-quality breakfast is a game changer, but there are also major pitfalls to breakfast. For example, research suggests that eating breakfast when you would normally be asleep can disrupt circadian rhythms and cause metabolic problems. If you are waking up with an alarm to go to work, and forcing yourself to eat breakfast, you may be doing yourself more harm than good.
Another time skipping breakfast is a smart move is after a night of heavy partying or overeating. If blood sugar is still elevated the next morning, fasting may be a better choice to allow blood sugar to normalize and give the gut a chance to finish digesting and assimilating the excess of food you dumped on it.
Finally, for most athletes, the most important meal is going to be the one immediately after their workout. Post-workout is prime time to provide the body with nutrition for tissue repair and recovery: Protein stimulates protein synthesis, carbs are used to restore glycogen in the muscle and liver, and healthy fat can counter inflammation. Additionally, nutrients are better absorbed after workouts, which allows your body to get the most out of your meals.
The Bottom Line: The ideal nutrition plan is unique to the individual. If you’re hungry in the morning and breakfast makes you feel energized and on-point, eat it. If not, don’t get sidetracked by dogma that doesn’t work for you.