Over time our understandings about nutrition evolve, develop, and change. We get new information. We get different information. We get information that sometimes confirms past beliefs, but other times it flies in the face of what we formerly believed.
Then there are instances when research doesn’t actually change, but the advice regarding best practices still does. In this article I am going to hit on a couple very important nutritional beliefs that have undergone change.
The change was first for the better, but then for the worse. What can we do now to alter course a third time to correct our mistakes?
THE THEORY: NUTRIENT TIMING
The first part of the myth was this idea that individuals should eat 6 meals a day to keep their metabolism high. It was thought that each time you ate, your body would start to burn the calories as it was digested.
Stimulating this process more times per day would thus cause you to keep your metabolism higher and burning calories more often.
The second part of the myth was a belief that Individuals shouldn’t eat after a certain time at night. It was believed that since you are less active at night, if you ate too late, those calories would go unused and stored as fat.
The Myth Debunked
We then came to understand that you could eat two or four meals instead of six and it would have literally zero impact on your 24 hour metabolism as long as your calorie intake was the same.
You didn’t need six meals a day and if it was more convenient to just eat three that would be acceptable.
While we do burn calories in order to digest food (i.e. the thermic effect of food), the total amount of calories we burn will be ultimately determined by your daily calorie intake.
If you eat 6 small 400 calorie meals or 3 larger 800 calorie meals, your thermic effect from food will be the same.
Again, we now understand our total calories for the day matter most, not when we eat those calories.
Your body is constantly shifting between a negative or positive energy balance throughout the day as you eat (store calories) and live (burn calories).
If you chose to save 500 calories to eat at midnight as opposed to 6pm, you won’t magically store those calories as fat.
The Reality: What We Know Now
The idea of calories over the course of the day mattering the most ended up being over-generalized. In actuality, there can be numerous benefits to how you time your meals.
The first and most obvious benefit is related to workout performance. Your ability to train at your absolute best will impact your body composition results more than anything else (calories being equal).
Maybe you are someone who needs to have a certain amount of calories or carbs before training to feel energized or maybe you prefer to train without much in your stomach to avoid feeling sluggish.
You should tailor the amount you eat in a way which allows you to enhance performance the most.
The second huge benefit from nutrient timing is actually an argument for nutrient spacing. More specifically, protein spacing.
You recall the myth we debunked that we don’t actually need 6 meals a day. Some took this too far and believed that they could get away with just 2 or in some extreme cases, one giant meal per day.
Current research shows the amount of times we stimulate muscle protein synthesis does matter.
One study showed that distributing 80 grams of protein in different ways during a 12 hour post-workout window had different results on muscle protein synthesis.1
If we distribute the protein across too many feedings, then the resulting protein per feeding is not great enough to stimulate protein synthesis (an argument against too many meals).
Conversely, throwing too much protein into just a couple meals (in this study it was 2 feedings) was not as optimal as 20 grams over four feedings because muscle protein synthesis was elevated four times as opposed to two.
Another study, done by Mamerow and colleagues, provided further proof that intermittent fasting protocols were most likely sub-optimal. They found that evenly distributing calories and protein throughout the day had superior results.2
In 2013, Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld published a research study which also stated the benefits of making sure training individuals eat some protein around their training session in order to get optimal results.
They stated, “Due to the transient anabolic impact of a protein-rich meal and its potential synergy with the trained state, pre- and post-exercise meals should not be separated by more than approximately 3–4 hours”.3
THE THEORY: DAILY PROTEIN INTAKE
The big myth regarding protein has to do with the exact amount that is best in terms of muscle growth and retention.
The Myth Debunked
Old percentage-based approaches are flawed due to large differences in total calorie intake for each individual.
We came to understand that it didn’t matter if our diet contained 20% of our calories from protein or 50% of our calories from protein, what mattered most was the total in terms of grams.
More specifically, it mattered that we were getting enough grams of protein given our weight (or lean body mass).
For example, a 200-lb male dieting down for a show may only be eating 1800 calories. If he was following a 30-40-30 diet, then his total protein intake would only be 135 grams. This (0.67grams/lb.) would certainly not be enough protein for someone looking to optimally maintain muscle mass while on a cut.
Let’s say that this bodybuilder ended up getting down to 180 pounds for his show. He then decides to bulk back up after the show and his intake ends up being 3000 calories. If he follows the 40-40-20 bulking diet, then his protein intake would be 300 grams (1.67g/lb.).
The Reality: What We Know Now
At the turn of the century, it was very commonplace to see 1-2g/lb. in bodyweight as a minimal protein intake. This largely was the result of following the percentage approach.
That figure was later adjusted down to 1g/lb. bodyweight based on a more current understanding that our protein intake should match our body size.
Then gradually, this 1g/lb. ended up being driven down and down to lower intakes. First it was 1g/lb. bodyweight; then 1g/lb. lean body mass; then later 0.8g/lb. LBM.
Now I’ve even seen some opting for lower intakes or telling others there isn’t that much a difference if they can’t meet this minimal level.
While there may be some studies that do not find large differences in body composition and muscle growth when ingesting these lower ranges compared to the higher ranges, there is also research supporting the higher intakes.
So, who is right? In my mind, the question is, if more might be better, why would you not opt for the “safer approach” and shoot for the higher end?
In 2012, researchers looked through a large volume of past studies to find that higher protein intakes resulted in better muscle gains.
The studies which demonstrated no significant increases in muscle gains were due to low total protein intakes (compared to standard intakes within the bodybuilding community) or the difference between groups (i.e. high and low protein test groups) was very small to begin with.4
The same researchers found that when protein intakes were higher, subjects had better resulting body compositions.5 Additional studies have shown that protein “overfeeding” does not result in increased fat mass as carbs and fats do.
So if overfeeding protein will minimize fat gain, why would someone who is bulking not opt for higher protein intakes?
For someone who is cutting and dealing with losses in resting metabolic rate, why would you not want to eat more protein to help mitigate that decline?
The researchers specifically state: “This is the first interventional study to demonstrate that consuming a hypercaloric high protein diet does not result in an increase in body fat.” 6
A second study also found that protein overfeeding does not result in increased fat mass, and additionally there were increases in resting metabolic rate and 24 hour energy expenditure in their subjects.7
Not only that, higher protein intakes when compared to equivalent calories in carbohydrates have been shown to correspond with higher perceived feelings of fullness.8
So I ask you, if we do have a fair amount of evidence that more can be better, why would you not opt for a higher protein intake?
Unless you are very limited in terms of budget or dietary restrictions, I would advocate staying at least at 1g/lb. of bodyweight.
If you are extremely overweight, then using lean body mass is probably fine. If you are already lean and cutting, your muscle is more susceptible to catabolism, and I would strongly advocate a 1.5g/lb. protein intake or close to it.
1. Nutrient and Protein Timing
- You don’t need 6 meals a day to speed up your metabolism
- You don’t need to cut off food before the clock hits 7pm.
- Don’t take your calorie and protein intake to extremes.
- Eating 6-8 meals per day isn’t helping and could be hurting if your meals are too small.
- Fasting could be hindering you from achieving your best results, especially if you are eating all of your calories late in the day and training hours before hand.
- Spread meals 3-5 hours apart.
- Have one feeding close to your training session to enhance recovery.
A Word of Caution:
- Don’t let meal timing dictate and control your life.
- You don’t need to set an alarm to make sure your meals are precisely spaced.
- Your muscles won’t fall off if you don’t maximize MPS for a day here and there.
2. Total Protein Intake
- Stop basing your protein intake as a percentage of your calories for the day.
- Start basing your total protein intake on your body’s size.
- Most folks should aim for 1g/lb. of bodyweight as a safe minimum.
- According to Helms, you could potentially go slightly higher and see additional benefits. He suggests 2.3-3.1g/kb, which equates to 1.05-1.4g/lb of LBM.
A Word of Caution:
- Do not go so high on your protein that you sacrifice your fat intake (0.4-0.5g/lb.) or carbohydrate needs for performance.
- Do not cut out nutrient dense foods, such as vegetables, in order to go from an intake of 1.25g/lb. to 1.5g/lb.
- Always make sure you still have some balance in your diet.