Is meal timing even important? When is the best time to eat dinner and will it aid your weight loss? Let’s talk about meal timing. The modern-day lifestyle has domesticated recent generations to the point where most of us need to be encouraged to exercise. No longer do we need to hunt and gather our food from savannahs and seashores but can have ready-made sushi platters and kale shakes delivered to our doors with a few swipes and taps of an app. We love technology and progress and would never wish anyone to go back to a pre-antibiotic age just to live out the ‘glory days’ of a paleo diet fad.
However, the lack of physical day to day activity in combination with widely popular fast foods has led to the growing obesity epidemic. This age of abundance has presented modern societies with new problems of controlling macronutrient ratios and meal frequencies with enough conflicting advice to complicate the issue further.
Meal Timing for Weight Loss
A meta-analysis, a study of studies, in 2015 (Source) found that there was no significant effect on weight loss or body composition when varying the number of meals from one meal a day to 6 meals per day. The meta-analysis also found that only a single study out of the 15 studies analyzed had found a positive association between increasing the number of meals with improved fat loss. As the remaining studies found no relationship between the two, it is more likely than not that there is no specific benefit to choosing one protocol over another.
Meal Timing to Control Hunger
One of the more important factors when succeeding at a diet is controlling hunger. Preventing excess snacking or midnight bingeing on leftover pizza and vegan chocolate cake just might be the path to getting your abs to pop. They are made in the kitchen, right?
A 2010 synopsis (Source) of controlled feeding studies found that increasing the number of meals from the average 3 per day had no significant effect on hunger control. This phenomenon was found again in a more recent 2015 study (Source) where eating more meals per day had no decrease in overall appetite.
However, reducing the number of meals per day was found to have a detrimental effect on hunger control. Anyone who has tried intermittent fasting (related article) may be aware of the health benefits, but they might also be confused about this diet’s ability to burn more fat. More importantly, anyone who is fasting intermittently for weight loss might be at risk of bingeing due to the increased hunger. Staying disciplined with the portion sizes and macronutrient intake will ensure that you don’t overfeed when it’s your turn to eat.
Meal Timing and Metabolism
A 2011 position stand (Source) by the Journal of Internation Society of Sports Nutrition found no statistically significant differences in metabolism when comparing different meal frequencies from as low as one meal a day to seven meals per day. An important thing to note is that the subjects all controlled for calorie intake.
However, intermittent fasting has been shown to slightly increase the metabolic rate (Source) due to the increased levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine in the body. As these studies deal with averages, the data shows that there can be large ranges in which an individual may function. So, the only way to tell could be to apply the methods to ourselves and see how we do.
Meal Timing and Muscle Gain
We know that calorie deficits are the way to losing body mass and more importantly, losing body fat. But timing our meals and caloric surplus for optimizing our muscle gains has been a topic of discussion as well. A 2014 study (Source) found that evenly spreading out protein intake three times per day was better at stimulating protein synthesis than the usual eating habits of eating larger amounts of protein with dinner. So your post workout meal or protein shake should be tailored around your day and divided more evenly alongside the rest of your calories.
The study only followed the subjects for 7 days so longer studies would be needed to check for any plateaus or delayed equalization periods. This study also only looked at rates of protein synthesis and not actual muscle growth, which is something I would like to know more about. But until the evidence emerges, it seems that evenly splitting protein throughout the day would be the best course of action for now.
Putting It All Together
As with all diets, maintaining an appropriate energy balance will dictate how effective they will be. Calories and adherence are Kings and following their laws are the only way to guarantee success.