Meal timing is overrated—here’s what you should focus on first.
Meal timing refers to the practice of eating a specific meal with a specific amount of macronutrients at a specific time. As you can gather, specificity is key. The typical focus is on the timing and amount of carbohydrates and proteins before, during and after workouts.
If you’ve spent any time around fitness enthusiasts, you’ve probably witnessed or heard of people stuffing their faces with Sour Patch Kids pre-lift, immediately chugging protein post-lift (can’t miss the “anabolic window”), or following some sort of intermittent fasting protocol.
Is this really necessary for your health, fitness, and body composition goals though? What about performance? Let’s find out.
Is meal timing effective?
There’s no clear verdict on this yet. While a 2006 study shows an increase in muscle and strength gains from eating a certain amount of carbs, protein, and creatine closer to their workout rather than later, other studies fail to show the same.
The scientific process is far from perfect, and findings from different research studies and clinical trials may not always agree. However, in my experience in working with over 100 clients, I have found that many things matter more than meal timing for people who simply want to look and feel better.
In particular, what I’ve found is that people get so worked up on these higher-order skills, including meal timing, without first establishing a solid base of food hygiene, quality and quantity of food, sleep, and other healthy lifestyle factors.
The anabolic window of opportunity
For years, bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts alike have been set on consuming “quick-digesting” carbs and protein powder within 15 to 30 minutes after training. Many people fear their workout is essentially wasted if they miss this window to replenish.
Long-term studies show that this window may actually be much wider than we think. In fact, these studies show that you likely have one to two hours post-lift to replenish — and if you’re consuming a meal one to two hours before your workout, your body will still be able to use these nutrients to replenish post workout. In other words, you probably don’t need to chug your protein or carb shake as soon as you re-rack the dumbbells.
Is it true that carbs can only be eaten post workout?
You know we love to bust fitness myths (proof here and here). And we’re about to do it again.
Myth 1: Carbs must be eaten immediately post workout to replenish your glycogen stores.
Truth 1: As long as you are taking in enough high quality carbohydrates each day, your body will replenish glycogen stores. You do not need to be super aware of the timing if you aren’t working out multiple times per day. Remember, your body is designed to do these things. It’s equipped with the mechanisms; you just need to supply the fuel.
Myth 2: Carbs can only be eaten in the mornings and/or post workout. If you eat them at any other time, they’ll be stored as fat.
Truth 2: Um, no. There is simply not enough research to support whether you should eat the majority of your carbs early or late in the day. As long as you are focusing on quality and total amount, you should eat your carbohydrates at a time that feels best for you. Maybe you crash if you eat them all in the morning, maybe you don’t sleep well if you eat them at night — listen to your body on this one.
Things to consider before attempting to implement meal timing
Precision Nutrition puts the hierarchy of importance well when it comes to meal timing. Here’s the list they made in order of importance:
As you can see, when you eat is of least importance. On top of that, all of the factors mentioned earlier like sleep, non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), stress management, and other health and lifestyle factors also come before addressing meal timing.
Chrononutrition and eating with your circadian rhythm
By no means am I saying that meal timing is 100% unimportant. The research on chrononutrition proves that eating in certain time windows that follow our circadian rhythms has a profound impact on our metabolisms and likelihood of getting certain diseases.
It’s no secret that our bodies, along with everything else on Earth, love rhythm. So before looking into specific times of eating pre- and post-workout, it’s more important to first establish daily consistency with regard to the quality of your meals and your body clock.
Who can benefit from meal timing?
Elite athletes, endurance athletes, and athletes needing to cut weight, such as bodybuilders and other physique competitors, can all benefit greatly from meal timing. These people are probably already hyper-focused on how much they are eating, how they are eating, why they are eating, and what they are eating.
Meal timing may be the difference between the bodybuilder dropping an extra 0.5% body fat or the elite athlete recovering from their training. Endurance athletes or others training for two hours or more will need to time their meals in order to keep glycogen (energy) stores up and electrolytes balanced.
Smarter Sweat takeaways
While meal timing is not a lost cause, it’s not as important as some will lead you to believe. Our bottom-line is: Build your foundation first. Then — once you establish a foundation of consistent, healthy habits — if you feel you need or want more for yourself or your performance, it may be helpful to look into meal timing.
If you are looking to generally improve your health, fitness, or body composition, remember there is no hack, not even meal timing. There is only quality, consistency, and discipline.
To get help building your foundation, check out our Smarter Sweat Programs. For more specific coaching or to see what’s the best fit for you, schedule a free consult with Smarter Sweat I.D. (formerly Pfancy Fitness; full rebrand coming soon).
By Ashley Pfantz
Ashley is the cofounder of Smarter Sweat, certified personal trainer and professional health and fitness coach. She also owns Smarter Sweat I.D. (formerly Pfancy Fitness), an individualized fitness, nourishment, and lifestyle coaching business where she coaches all of her clients remotely.
About Smarter Sweat
Smarter Sweat is a fitness company built from the ground up by fitness experts Amanda Capritto and Ashley Phantz. Amanda and Ashley are both dead-set on cutting through the clutter of the fitness industry and providing raw, real, utterly honest information about fitness and wellness.