When it comes to healthy eating, you’ve likely heard far more about what to eat and how much to eat versus when to eat. It makes sense: Most experts say you first need to know whether you’re eating too much or not enough, then nail down the right macronutrient balance for your goals. Most people fine-tune nutrient timing later.
But if you’re eating the right foods in the right amounts and still not seeing the results you think you should be, could it be when you’re eating that’s holding you back?
Let’s dive into the question of timed nutrition and how it might work for you.
What is Timed Nutrition?
Timed nutrition is based on the idea that planning meals around when your body needs certain nutrients — which could be based on the time of day as well as your workout schedule — is just as important as what you’re eating.
Is Timed Nutrition the Same as Intermittent Fasting?
Not necessarily, though both do take timing into account. Intermittent fasting is a popular diet technique that involves not eating for prescribed periods of time, commonly a 12- to 16-hour period overnight.
But don’t get too hung up on the exact number of hours. “If you’re hungry when you wake up, eat — and if you’re not hungry immediately upon waking, wait to eat,” says Paige Benté, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.
To schedule your fast, you would start with what time you need to get up in the morning, and work backward to determine the timing for your last meal before bed.
So if you have to get up at 6 AM, you could aim to have dinner by 7 PM the night before. That gives you 11 hours between meals, and if you eat dinner an hour earlier (or if you tend to eat breakfast an hour or two after you wake up), you’ll fall into that 12- to 16-hour range.
Does Meal Timing Really Work?
We’ve been conditioned to eat by the clock, though it’s a habit that contradicts the concept of mindful eating, or purposefully noticing hunger and satiety cues.
But is timed nutrition important? Does it matter? Yes and no, says Benté.
“With athletes, it’s much more important to time your meals appropriately,” says Benté, adding that this is less important for the weekend warrior than the Olympic athlete.
Those in between may see a benefit, but in general, for most people, missing an occasional meal or eating lunch an hour early isn’t going to make or break your diet.
But you do need to eat regularly. In a statement published in the journal Circulation, the American Heart Association makes the case for eating intentionally and paying attention to the timing and frequency of your meals.
According to the AHA, a consistent, regular eating schedule could yield a healthier lifestyle and could benefit your cardiovascular health, too.
And when it comes to weight loss and maintenance, the timing of your meals is an important factor in maintaining appetite and healthy blood sugar levels throughout the day, says Jim White, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Regularly timed meals can also help you maintain a healthy metabolism and energy levels, he adds.
Additionally, going to bed with a full stomach or not eating the right ratio and amount of carbs and protein on either side of a workout can mean that you’re not getting the most from all that work, something we’ll delve into in just a moment
Do You Need to Eat Three Meals a Day?
In general, “We recommend you eat every two to three hours,” says Benté. This way, “you’re avoiding ever becoming absolutely starving,” which can prevent you from blowing your diet by snacking too much or overeating.
Do that math, and what it adds up to is this: Most people won’t recommend you skip any meals. “If you skip breakfast and then you are ravenously hungry by noon and eat double what you would normally eat for lunch, then you haven’t done yourself any favors,” Benté says. Same goes for lunch — skip it, and you’re just more likely to make poor choices later when you’re starving.
But make sure you’re not chowing dinner down right before bed.
“A light dinner about three hours before bed is the best way to make sure your meal is not getting in the way of adequate sleep,” says White, adding that keeping it light will ensure that you are able to burn off some of that energy before bed.
Does It Matter When You Eat Carbs?
“In general, we recommend not consuming foods that are high in processed carbohydrates immediately before bed,” says White, since carbs provide energy — the last thing you need before bed — and highly processed carbs are likely to be higher in sugar and lower in beneficial nutrients.
(Of course, this goes along with the above recommendation to avoid eating anything up to three hours before bed anyway.)
Bedtime aside, your carb intake should be consumed as part of balanced meals throughout the day.
Does It Matter When You Eat Protein?
When most people ask whether they should eat protein at a certain time, they’re usually asking in conjunction with weight lifting or intense exercise: The concept of nutrient timing includes a focus on the anabolic window when muscles are most receptive to protein after a workout. It especially comes into play when determining how to eat leading up to your big endurance event.
To support your muscles after your workout, you’ll want to consume a protein that is quickly absorbed, like whey. Just before bed, casein protein is your friend: “Consuming casein, a slow-absorbed protein, before bed can improve muscle gain and fat loss,” says White. “It can also increase metabolism during sleep and improve satiety, helping you to eat less during the day.”
In general, though, focusing on daily protein intake — and making sure you incorporate protein regularly throughout the day — is currently thought to be more important than frantically downing protein exactly 29 minutes after a workout for most people (who aren’t competitive athletes).
Do You Have to Wait to Exercise After Eating Carbs?
If you go too long without eating, you may not have enough energy to exercise, but eating too close to your sweat session can wreck your workout.
So how long before a workout should you eat? It depends on your personal diet and your goals, but a general recommendation is to eat within three hours of a workout. Carbs should be part of your pre-workout snack, which would ideally be a 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein, about an hour before your sweat session begins.
This will give you adequate energy to avoid bonking during your workout, and will also give you enough time to let your snack settle before you get to it.