Debunking The 5 Most Common Myths About Meal Timing

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Healthy eating can be a confusing subject! Meal timing is a classic example of one of those tricky topics. Trying to find out the facts about what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat, can be a frustrating experience

“Should I eat breakfast or will my metabolism slow down if I skip it”

“Is it really true that eating six meals per day is better for your metabolism than eating two or three meals per day”

“Are carbs eaten at night (after 6pm) more likely to be stored as fat”

The meal timing questions seem endless. Thankfully, we’ve got your back and in this article we’re going to do some myth busting around meal timing.

Meal Timing Myth #1: Small, frequent meals speed up your metabolism

One of the most frequent debates that lingers in the fitness industry is how frequently we should eat. Surprisingly, there isn’t much to debate based on research findings!

The overwhelming majority of studies show that meal frequency has no significant impact on metabolic rate (or fat loss). But why does this myth have so much clout despite the fat that the evidence shows it’s not true?

The overwhelming majority of studies show that meal frequency has no significant impact on fat loss. Click To Tweet

In short, many fitness coaches and nutritionists tout that if you eat more frequently, you will naturally boost the amount of energy/calories you burn per day due to the thermic effect of feeding (TEF) increasing. The TEF is the amount of calories we burn every time we consume food (we burn calories when digesting food).

Many folks think that the calories we use to digest food increases when we consume smaller, more frequent meals. The trouble is that this isn’t true.

Research has shown that when energy intake is equal between two diets, the net TEF at the end of the day is the same for each regardless of meal frequency.

To go into this in some more detail, if the net TEF of eating six 150g turkey breasts is 300 calories, eating one of the breasts at a time would yield a TEF of 50 calories per go. If you were to eat three at a time then the TEF of each would be 150 calories. No matter how you mix and match the turkey breasts, the net TEF at the end of the day would always be 300 calories.

Meal Timing Myth #2: Carbs eaten at night (after 6pm) are more likely to be stored as fat

Just because the sun is setting and wolves are howling toward the night sky doesn’t mean your body suddenly has no use for carbs and stores them as fat.

This fallacy seems to stem from the idea that carbs increase the production of the body’s production of insulin – a highly-anabolic storage hormone. Since many people don’t move much in the evening, they fear that the insulin secretion from carbohydrates will lead to fat storage. The truth is your body doesn’t dictate whether or not carbs (or any nutrients, for that matter) are stored as fat or used for energy simply by the time of day, it’s a lot more complex than that.

What’s more, many people (especially those who exercise in the evening) could actually benefit from consuming a moderate serving of carbohydrates later on in the day as carbs can help promote muscle growth and help your body recover after exercise

Another thing, slow-digesting, wholesome carbohydrate sources generally contain a good amount of fiber which promotes satiety (feelings of fullness) and supports healthy digestion. Some research even suggests eating carbs at night might help with fat loss (but the mechanisms by how that works remain to be entirely clear).

Finally, carbs also increase serotonin production in the brain – a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of relaxation and calmness.  Thus, chomping on some carbs in the evening can even help you unwind and sleep better.

Bottom line – carbs after 6 are fine. It’s the total amount of carbs your eat per day that contributes to whether your weight drops, increases or stays the same.

Meal Timing Myth #3: Skipping breakfast can lead to weight gain

Skipping breakfast (i.e. the first meal of the day) is essentially a short, intermittent fasting period for the body.

There is also evidence that fasting in the short-term (e.g. 12 to 16 hours) may have a variety of physiological benefits, such as increased utilisation of fat as energy and increased growth hormone production.

What’s quite interesting about intermittent fasting, is that contrary to popular belief, research suggests it’s actually beneficial for healthy aging and metabolic rate in the long run.

But what about losing muscle?

Something that you might have heard of down the gym is that skipping breakfast can move your body into a  “catabolic mode”…which doesn’t sound good does it?

It’s true that the body relies on amino acids (you get these once protein has been broken down) to repair, maintain and build muscle tissue. So some folks might think that if you skip on breakfast, or specifically, skip having protein with breakfast then your body won’t have these amino acids to help with muscle repair. Bro logic suggests that physiological cause ensues and your muscles will wilt away like a neglected plant.

But, consider this, if you ate a decent sized, protein-rich meal the night before, you still have amino acids swirling around in your body. Furthermore, carbohydrates and fats would serve as preferential energy sources before the body resorted to converting protein to useful energy.

In short, skipping breakfast is not bad for fat loss or muscle building, and in many ways it can be beneficial.

Skipping breakfast is not bad for fat loss or muscle building, and in many ways it can be beneficial. Click To Tweet

The thing to keep in mind here is that extended periods of fasting (i.e. 30+ hours) do appear to cause a drop in metabolic rate, which is only natural considering it wouldn’t make sense for the body to burn large amounts of energy when it’s not receiving any calories from tasty food.

[Related: Why Breakfast is NOT The Most Important Meal Of The Day]

Meal Timing Myth #4: You must neck a protein shake straight after a workout.

Most gym-goers, especially bodybuilders and weightlifters alike, assume that the minute they finish their last rep their body goes into that old chestnut: “catabolic mode”. To combat this, gym-lore dictates that ‘thou must necketh a protein shake post-haste…eth’

Guess what? Research shows there is no significant difference in body composition changes between people who chug a protein shake right after training and those who wait two to three hours after training to eat.

Physiologically, this is because the your muscles are primed to receive some protein for several hours (not minutes) after training. In turn, you don’t need to fret about missing the “window of opportunity” that so many health and fitness gurus  harp on about. This myth has been perpetuated for decades largely as a means for supplement companies to sell more protein powder.

[RelatedThe Complete Guide On What To Eat Before & After Exercise]

Meal Timing Myth #5: Eating late at night leads to weight gain

meal timing myths

Tying in with the myth about carb consumption after 6pm, eating late at night doesn’t inherently mean the food you’ll eat will go straight onto the hips! Once again, let’s consider the context. If someone happens to workout late at night, then the short-term metabolic effects (e.g. enhanced insulin sensitivity) of that exercise means we should really be eating afterwards, especially if the workout was resistance training.

While the body does have biorhythms that regulate hormone secretion, this doesn’t mean the body goes into “fat-storage” mode later at night. The body is not an on-off switch when it comes to how it handles nutrients.

Look at Spain. It’s not uncommon to eat the largest meal of the day after 9pm. Are they all overweight because they’re eating at night? No.

There is research suggesting that individuals who preferentially eat the majority of their calories at dinner maintain similar body composition as those who eat large meals earlier in the day.This isn’t to say you should binge on a huge meal and then go right to bed, but there is certainly little reason to believe that eating a nominal amount of food later in the evening is going to make you gain fat.

Wrap-Up

So there you have it, 5 popular nutrient timing myths debunked with simple science and rationale. The bottom line is that nutrition is a very individual lifestyle choice; while there are concepts that apply to everyone, some personal modifications will need to be made to optimise your diet plan.

Don’t sweat the small stuff, like how many times you eat per day or what time you eat. The main thing is to be meeting your total energy and macronutrient needs, as those are largely what dictate changes in body composition. How often you should eat and when is entirely down to you – what do you prefer, what suits your routine, what’s the most convenient and simply, what do you enjoy?

Confusing meal timing myths can make healthy eating a struggle!
Scott Baptie

Scott is the owner and founder of Food For Fitness. He is a fat loss coach, speaker and fitness writer with a masters (MSc) degree in Applied Sports Nutrition.