When it comes to healthy eating, you’ve likely heard far more about what 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, but still not seeing the results you think you should be, could it be when you’re eating that’s holding you back?
How much does meal timing matter, really? Is meal timing a myth? Let’s dive into that question and others about when you should eat.
What is Nutrient Timing?
Eating macronutrients at certain times — before, during, or after workouts — is called nutrient timing.
The concept of nutrient timing includes the new rules of protein timing, or the “anabolic window” after workouts when muscles are most receptive to protein. It comes into play when determining how to eat leading up to your big endurance event.
Is Meal Timing a Myth?
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.
So is meal timing a myth? Yes and no, says Paige Benté, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D.. It matters, just not as much as you might think.
“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. (But those in between may see a benefit.)
In general, for most people, missing one meal occasionally or eating lunch an hour early or late isn’t what’s 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 Breakfast?
Breakfast is the first food-related decision you make daily, and White says it’s a no-brainer. “Breakfast literally means breaking your body out of its nightly fast,” he says.
While some people may be able to skip breakfast and still balance the rest of their day in terms of calories and nutrients, it’s not easy or generally recommended.
“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.
White is definitely on Team Breakfast: “It spurs metabolism, gives you an energy boost, and it also provides your brain with the fuel that it needs to function at work or school, helping you to concentrate and focus.”
Amy Shapiro, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., embraces the adage “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” She says she loves “the idea of a bigger meal at breakfast, as you are guaranteed to use that energy throughout the day.”
Furthermore, some studies have shown that men who eat breakfast are less likely to gain weight compared with those who do not.
Does Eating Lunch Matter?
Does eating lunch matter? Gordon Gekko, the antagonist of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, famously crowed that “lunch is for wimps.”
But Gekko is definitely not a role model for healthy living — and eating lunch does matter. Shapiro thinks lunch is your best bet for getting a midday energy boost and avoiding the afternoon slump.
“We need lunch to keep our energy up throughout the day and to prevent us from overeating later in the day,” says Shapiro, a New York-based nutritionist. “If you skip it and let yourself get too hungry, dinner will be too big — and this can ruin your workout goals and weight-loss efforts.”
What if you just don’t have time for lunch? Are your health goals doomed? Benté says no. “If you can go with breakfast and dinner in a day, and eat the appropriate amount of calories then, sure,” you can overlook lunch, she says.
What’s the Right Time to Eat Dinner?
Sleep is a vital component of health, and your nutrition should work in sync with your other healthy habits — not against them.
Hitting the sack with a full belly is unlikely to help you sleep. What’s the right time to eat dinner? It’s best not to eat too close to bedtime (though that’s better than skipping dinner).
“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.
That three-hour window should leave enough time between eating and lying down to let your body get a head start on digestion, so as to not interfere with your ability to get to sleep — and stay asleep.
Eating less than two hours before bedtime isn’t recommended, says Benté. “That’s really to allow digestion to take place before sleep and prevent things like acid reflux.”
How Long Do You Need to Go Without Eating at Night?
If you need to give yourself at least three hours to digest dinner before bed, how long do you need to go without eating at night?
Benté says you should go at least another eight hours — the recommended amount of sleep per night. To determine the timing for your last meal, look at what time you need to get up, and work backward.
If you have to get up at 6 a.m., you will want to be in bed by 10 p.m., so you’ll ideally have dinner by 7 p.m. That gives you 11 hours between meals, and if you eat dinner earlier or tend to eat breakfast later, you’ll naturally have more hours between meals.
While intermittent fasting is a popular diet technique that involves not eating for prescribed periods of time, commonly a 12- to 16-hour period overnight, 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 Benté.
What Is the Best Thing to Eat Before Bed?
If you want to make your bedtime snack part of your recovery routine, what is the best thing to eat before bed?
To support your muscles after your workout, you’ll want to consume a protein that is absorbed slowly, like casein. This gives your body the tools it needs to repair and grow muscles overnight, while you sleep.
While whey protein, which the body absorbs quickly, is a good idea after a workout, “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, we recommend not consuming foods that are high in processed carbohydrates immediately before bed,” she adds, since carbs provide energy (aka, the last thing you need before bed).
Let’s look at a few other commonly asked questions surrounding meal timing to get your eating plan on point.
How Long Should You Wait to Exercise After Eating Carbs?
One common question related to nutrient timing is: How long should you wait to exercise after eating carbs?
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.
How Long Before a Workout Should You Eat?
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.
How Many Times a Day Should You Eat to Lose Weight?
When you’re trying to lose weight, meal timing can be tricky. You don’t want to get too hungry and risk overeating, but you need to keep your daily calorie goal in mind.
How many times a day should you eat to lose weight? “We recommend you eat every two to three hours,” says Benté.
This ensures your body is getting all of the appropriate nutrients and avoids the dreaded “hanger.” “You’re avoiding ever becoming absolutely starving,” says Benté, which can prevent you from blowing your hard work by snacking too much or overeating.
The Bottom Line
While you don’t need to eat by the clock or time your meals down to the minute, frequent and regular meals and snacks are going to help prevent hunger and keep your energy levels steady.
In addition, paying attention to your macro intake before and after workouts can help ensure you have energy from warm-up to cooldown — and your muscles will be primed and ready for next time.