The best answer that I or anyone else out there that deals with a great deal of nutritional science can give you will be a resounding, “it depends.”
Unfortunately that sounds like a fairly gray answer, doesn’t it? Initially, once you break beyond the weight loss or gain phenomenon (oh, the sarcasm) known as energy in versus energy out and start to venture into more intermediate and advanced nutritional scientific studies or theorems things start becoming less “black and white” like energy in versus energy out and more “it depends” like the topic at hand.
Today I am going to do my best effort to keep the topic on nutrient timing in regards to improving body composition. I will, by chance, touch on many different topics relating to nutrient timing, but in a whole we are talking about body composition only.
Before jumping into the alpha/omega of nutrient timing quotes I will state strongly that I am on the side that nutrient timing and meal frequency, when looked at in black and white, are absolutely irrelevant for improving body composition.
When speaking of nutrition for improving body composition or athletic performance, it’s crucial to realize there’s an underlying hierarchy of importance. At the top of the hierarchy of effects is total amount of the macronutrients by the end of the day. Below that — and I mean distantly below that — is the precise timing of those nutrients. With very few exceptions (i.e., the intermittent fasting crowd), athletes and active individuals eat multiple times per day, to the tune of at least four meals. Thus, the majority of their day is spent in the postprandial (fed) rather than a post-absorptive (fasted) state. The vast majority of nutrient timing studies have been done on overnight-fasted subjects put through glycogen depletion protocols, which obviously limits the applicability of the outcomes. Pre-exercise (and/or during-exercise) nutrient intake often has a lingering carry-over effect into the post-exercise period. Throughout the day, there’s a constant overlap of meal digestion and nutrient absorption. For this reason, the effectiveness of nutrient timing does not require a high degree of precision. -Alan Aragon, Alan Aragon’s Research Review, January 2008
Notice that the number one most important thing that Alan states is that hitting your daily total macronutrients for your goals is king. I’m not usually one to use a lot of personal experiences as evidence, but since I feel that I am a living and breathing example of nutrient timing experimentation let me say how true I believe that hitting macronutrient totals truly is. During my many years of attempting to achieve better body composition I practiced every method you can imagine ranging from the classic eight small meals a day to a strict fasting style protocols. Neither method worked better than the other in the long run. What did work was my persistence in hitting my predetermined macronutrient totals each day that I calculated for my personal goals.
I can almost hear the broscientists scattering to their computers to put on their keyboard warrior costumes to write me gushing e-mails about how they’ve gotten stronger or have more endurance in the gym based upon when they eat. Hold your dextrose shakes bros, I’m not done yet, no not by a long shot. Have mercy on my inbox and spare yourself the time because I’ll just look, laugh, and pass it over.
Uncle Jesse hates angry e-mails.
"If the timing of nutrients is beneficial for you due to your own personal reasons such as satiety, gastric comfort or the feelings of strength gain and increased endurance in the gym then by all means time your meals to best suit your lifestyle. Just be aware of the difference between biological necessity and personal preference. Strength and endurance in the gym is individual and it should be understood that some people train just as hard in the morning after an overnight fast. Therefore, you can not generalize nutrient timing as being beneficial for everyone. If it works for you, then by all means eat your meals at certain times, but it’s completely preferential. Even if you could generalize pre-workout nutrition for everyone, it would be an indirect benefit to body composition. Even if nutrient timing did allow you to train harder, it would still be correct to say that it has no direct impact on body composition. Your training does.
The only time that strict nutrient timing becomes relevant is if you perform multiple glycogen depleting activities in the same day, which does not apply to the majority of people out there.
You will not get fat based on when or how many meals you eat.
Once you’ve eaten a meal the body will take time for amino acids, fats, and carbs to slowly “leak” into your blood. Your body doesn’t know how much you just ate. All it knows is that there is a stream of nutrients coming in. While the nutrients are coming in you’re making use of them and expending calories. You’re making ATP and releasing heat, synthesizing new cells and neurotransmitters all over your body, and continuously carrying out every other biological function vital to life. Once all those nutrients are in your blood they will remain there for hours upon hours just waiting to be snatched up to provide energy for and be used up by one of these biological functions. If you’re ingesting more calories than you’re expending, then on average you will have constantly elevated levels of nutrients/available energy in your system. These must go somewhere, right? They can’t keep sitting in the blood. They will ultimately (way down the road) be stored as fat.
Net gains in fat are due to an overabundance of nutrients (calories/energy) over an extended period time. It’s not 12 hours, it’s not 24 hours. There is no exact timeframe. How long it takes for you to gain fat is dependant on many factors. If you overeat breakfast by 3500 calories you will not gain a pound of fat by the end of the day. It just doesn’t work like that.”
(the above is from a poster on the bodybuilding.com forums known as MikeK45)
What about the anabolic window?
The postexercise “anabolic window” is a highly misused and abused concept. Preworkout nutrition all but cancels the urgency, unless you’re an endurance athlete with multiple glycogen-depleting events in a single day. Getting down to brass tacks, a relatively recent study (Power et al. 2009) showed that a 45g dose of whey protein isolate takes appx 50 minutes to cause blood AA levels to peak. Resulting insulin levels, which peaked at 40 minutes after ingestion, remained at elevations known to max out the inhibition of muscle protein breakdown (15-30 mU/L) for 120 minutes after ingestion. This dose takes 3 hours for insulin and AA levels to return to baseline from the point of ingestion. The inclusion of carbs to this dose would cause AA and insulin levels to peak higher and stay elevated above baseline even longer. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18679613)
So much for the anabolic peephole and the urgency to down AAs during your weight training workout; they are already seeping into circulation (and will continue to do so after your training bout is done). Even in the event that a preworkout meal is skipped, the anabolic effect of the postworkout meal is increased as a supercompensatory response (Deldicque et al, 2010). Moving on, another recent study (Staples et al, 2010) found that a substantial dose of carbohydrate (50g maltodextrin) added to 25g whey protein was unable to further increase postexercise net muscle protein balance compared to the protein dose without carbs. Again, this is not to say that adding carbs at this point is counterproductive, but it certainly doesn’t support the idea that you must get your lightning-fast postexercise carb orgy for optimal results.
To add to this… Why has the majority of longer-term research failed to show any meaningful differences in nutrient timing relative to the resistance training bout? It’s likely because the body is smarter than we give it credit for. Most people don’t know that as a result of a single training bout, the receptivity of muscle to protein dosing can persist for at least 24 hours. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21289204)
Are you getting it yet? When you eat doesn’t matter for body composition as long as you are eating what you should be eating. Just eat when you feel like it.
I think nutrient timing is important too. Get your macros down your facehole at some point within the time you wake to the time you sleep, and time your meals so that they maximize and do not hinder performance - which again, will vary with individual goals, preference, and tolerance.
Here’s what you’re not seeming to grasp: the “windows” for taking advantage of nutrient timing are not little peepholes. They’re more like bay windows of a mansion. You’re ignoring just how long the anabolic effects are of a typical mixed meal. Depending on the size of a meal, it takes a good 1-2 hours for circulating substrate levels to peak, and it takes a good 3-6 hours (or more) for everythng to drop back down to baseline.
You’re also ignoring the fact that the anabolic effects of a meal are maxed out at much lower levels than typical meals drive insulin and amino acids up to. Furthermore, you’re also ignoring the body’s ability of anabolic (and fat-oxidative) supercompensation when forced to work in the absence of fuels. So, metaphorically speaking, our physiology basically has the universe mapped out and you’re thinking it needs to be taught addition and subtraction. -Alan Aragon
If you’ve been able to stick with me through this extensive post then let me applaud you.
Let me finish this all off by saying that if your goal is to improve your body composition then when you eat does not matter. The important thing is what you eat and in what amount. Don’t confuse the “what you eat matters” part with that going against an if it fits your macros philosophy because it doesn’t. Again, if it fits your macros simply means that if you want a treat here and there, have it, as long as you fit it into your daily macronutrient intake which is the most important thing for improving your body composition.
Stop splitting hairs over the rules. The beauty of food is that, unlike drugs, its physiological effects have neither the acuteness nor the magnitude to warrant extreme micro-management, especially when it comes to nutrient timing relative to training. A half an hour difference here or there really isn’t gonna make or break your physique.