4. Meal Timing/Frequency – How Often Should You Eat For Fat Loss And Muscle Gain?

When should you eat in relation to training? How often should you eat for successful cut/bulk? Should you cycle calories and macros? Should you incorporate refeeds?

As preceding questions indicated, in today’s article we will be covering topics related to the meal timing, meal frequency and refeeds. Together we will try to find answers to these questions. Welcome to the fourth installment of the series about the nutritional set-up.

Meal Frequency

Let’s look at meal frequency first. This simply means how many meals you consume during a day. Recommendations vary from 1 – 2 meals suggested in some intermittent fasting protocols up to 6 – 8 meals recommended by the old school bodybuilders. I would say that the most sensible advice is to eat between 2 – 6 meals.

Use the lower end, 2 – 4 meals, if you’re not very active outside the gym or if you’re following an intermittent fasting protocol. Lower meal frequency can be beneficial especially during a cut. When you’re cutting, you have to eat less food to create an energy deficit. If you choose to eat only 2 – 3 meals instead of 5 – 6, those two or three meals can be a lot larger and larger meals can be more satisfying (they sure are for me:)).

Use the higher end frequency, 4 – 6 meals, if you are very active, have a physically demanding job or if you have multiple training session in a day. Higher meal frequency can be beneficial during a bulking phase when you need to eat a lot more food than during a cut. Let’s say that you need to eat 3000 kcal during your gaining phase. If you decide to have just 2 meals, each meal would be around 1500 kcal as opposed to 750 kcal in the 4 meals alternative. So spreading your caloric intake over more meals can be beneficial if you need to eat a lot of calories and/or have a stomach sensitive to large portions of food.

hand holding a russian stopwatch

Meal / Nutrient Timing

Meal timing is about how you set-up your whole day eating schedule (breakfast at 8, lunch at 12 etc.) and when you eat in relation to training. Nutrient timing covers how you spread protein, fat and carbs over your meals.

There are two big factors that affect meal and nutrient timing – the time of your training (morning, evening etc.) and whether you use intermittent fasting and skip some meal (most likely breakfast). Some examples of how you can do it:

6:00 8:00 12:00 19:00
morning training breakfast training lunch dinner

 

8:00 12:00 15:00 20:00
afternoon training breakfast lunch training dinner

 

8:00 12:00 18:00 20:00
evening training breakfast lunch training dinner

 

In the morning training example, breakfast should be a lot smaller than the rest of the meals, something like 20% of your calories/macros.

In the afternoon training example, it’s recommended to have a small snack just after training since the dinner is a few hours away. If you’ve decided to skip breakfast, everything stays the same except in the case of the morning training. Since you’d be training fasted, it’s recommended to take 10g of BCAAs 10 – 15 minutes before training and 10g every hour after training until lunch.

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to consume the majority of your calories after the training, since your body needs the nutrients for recovery. Something like 40% before and 60% after, or just split it 50:50. One exception to these percentages is morning training, since eating almost half of your daily calories right before training isn’t the smartest idea:)

Regarding the macronutrient timing, I would say that you should split the macros similarly to calories. Spreading your protein intake evenly through all meals is a very good idea so your body has a steady supply of amino acids. Focusing on perfect timing of fats and carbs can have a small effect but I would say that’s an unnecessary complication for a majority of the population. Just don’t use extreme partitioning, like eat all fats before training and all carbs after training or similar, and you’re good.

reload arrows

Calorie / Macro Cycling

Calorie cycling is about changing your caloric intake throughout the week. Macro cycling is naturally tied to the calorie cycling because when you decrease/increase your caloric intake you must also decrease/increase intake of one or more macronutrients. In all of the methods below, I recommend to keep your protein intake the same and create a deficit from carbs and/or fats (for more details see macros guide).

Why should you consider using this complication? Well, when you diet (eat in a deficit) your body thinks that there is a lack of food so it has to keep you alive until you’ll find enough of it. It does that by decreasing the activity of some of the less important systems. This “safety protocol” is called metabolic adaptation. Another thing is that when you diet you are getting smaller and thus burn fewer calories. Following refeed methods should help you to delay or slow down the rate at which metabolic adaptation sets in.

There are several ways of implementing calorie and macro cycling. On a shorter time scale, we have refeeds. These can last from one day to a few days per week. On a larger scale, we have a diet break which can last one or more weeks. Let’s look at the refeeds first.

Single Day Refeed

This one is more about psychological than the physiological benefits because 24 hours is most likely not enough to reverse hormonal changes caused by dieting. Implementation is really simple – just pick one day of the week where you’d increase calories to maintenance and adjust the caloric intake for the rest of the week so you still hit your planned weekly deficit.

Example: If you want to lose 1 lbs (0,5 kg) per week you need to achieve a weekly deficit of roughly 3500 kcal. If you’re dieting 7 days, your daily deficit would be 3500 / 7 = 500 kcal. If you’d use the one day refeed your deficit for 6 “diet days” would be 3500 / 6 = 583 kcal. So if your maintenance intake is 2000 kcal, your diet days caloric intake would be roughly 1420 kcal.

Two Days Refeed

As the name suggest, here you’ll have two maintenance days in a week. The best way to implement it is to use two days in a row. As mentioned before, the single day a week at maintenance calories is most likely not enough to have a meaningful impact on hormonal changes caused by a diet. But two days in a row have a greater potential to reverse these changes. I would say that weekend could work the best. You could enjoy more food, probably eat out with friends, have a beer etc. But be sure to control it so it doesn’t turn out to be binge eating two days!

Example: Same as before, to lose one pound a week you need approximately 3500 kcal deficit. If you use two days refeed, you’re left with 5 days where you can create a deficit -> 3500 / 5 = 700 kcal per day. If your maintenance intake is 2000 kcal, your 5 diet days caloric intake would be 1300 kcal.

Three days refeed

Three days refeed is very similar to the two days refeed, except you have three maintenance days. You could use them in a row (eg. Friday, Saturday, Sunday) or you can have the refeeds on you training days, which can give you more energy for your workouts and/or improve recovery. The issue with this approach is that there is a big difference between refeed and diet days, so one day you can eat a lot and then the next day you have to restrict yourself a lot more.

Example: Once again, to lose one pound a week you need 3500 kcal deficit. If you use three days refeed, your caloric intake for the rest of the week (4 days) would be 3500 / 4 = 875 kcal per day. If your maintenance intake is 2000 kcal, your 4 diet days intake would only 1125 kcal.

Which of these three approaches is the best? It’s hard to tell because like a lot of the things in fitness, it’s highly individual so you’ll have to try and see what suits you the best. I personally used to follow three days refeed where I had maintenance days on training days. Then I’ve switched to straight dieting without any refeeds. And my plan for the next cut is to try two days refeed.

camping and grillingDiet Break

When you’ve been dieting for a few weeks, your body fights back by lowering its non-exercise activity thermogenesis – NEAT. This means you have to lower your calories more and more to continue losing fat. That’s where the diet break comes in. It allows your body and mind to relax a bit, to gather strength for the upcoming weeks of dieting.

Your goal during a diet break should be to eat as much as you can without gaining weight. Or more precisely without gaining fat, because you will gain weight when you’ll eat more carbs because carbs retain water. This means you won’t be in a deficit and thanks to that your body will receive the information that the shortage of food has ended and it can raise its NEAT. This should allow you to lose fat at higher caloric intake after the diet break.

Implementation

There are two good ways to implement the diet break – a relaxed one and a stricter one. Relaxed one is easy, you’ll just stop counting your calories/macros and you’ll eat until you’re no longer hungry. Or you’ll continue to eat the same foods as during a diet but have a bit larger portions. Or keep the portions the same and add a small treat here and there. I think you get the point:) Just don’t let it end as a “see food diet” – I see food, I eat food!

In the stricter version, you’ll continue counting calories/macros but you’ll increase the calories to maintenance or close to maintenance. A great strategy here could be to count only calories and protein and forget about the fats and carbs.

If you don’t know your approximate maintenance calories, you can estimate them here and then decrease this number by 10%. The decrease is needed because your metabolism is slowed down from previous weeks of dieting. I’ve learned about this from a legendary Lyle McDonald and it works great for me. (If you’re interested in more details about nutrition and training, be sure to check out his site.)

Duration And Timing

The recommended duration of a diet break is between two to three weeks. One week is too short for reversing most of the metabolic adaptations (slow down) caused by previous weeks of dieting.

How often should you use a diet break? It depends on more factors but the most important would be your body fat percentage and how aggressive deficit you’re using in your diet. The general recommendation is to use diet break every 6 – 8 weeks if you’re under 15% body fat and every 10 – 12 weeks if you’re above that.

chicken wraps

Wrapping It Up

Let’s summarize the recommendations about what and when to eat. I’ve divided the recommendations according to the time frame on which they’re applicable.

Shorter time frame – one day. Reasonable meal frequency is between 2 to 6 meals per day, use lower end (2 – 4 meals) during a cut and higher end (4 – 6 meals) during a bulk. As for a timing of meals/calories, eat 40 – 50% of your calories before and 50 – 60% after the training. One exception is morning training scenario, where your breakfast should be around 20% of your daily caloric intake.

Medium time frame – one week. Implementing 2 to 3 refeed days every week could be beneficial because it can stave off the metabolic adaptation a bit and can help with the diet adherence. 2 – 3 refeed days in a row seems to be the sweet spot. You could be in the deficit during a week and increase calories approximately to maintenance over the weekend, for example.

Longer time frame – few weeks/months. Give yourself a pause from dieting every 8 – 12 weeks by implementing a diet break, a purposeful increase of caloric intake to approximately maintenance levels. Recommended duration of a diet break is 2 – 3 weeks.

That’s all folks:) Next post will be the last in the nutritional setup series and we will cover the very popular topic – supplements.


Thank you very much for reading and I hope you’ve found the information helpful. I’m looking forward to reading your experiences regarding the topic, what you’ve tried, what worked for you and what didn’t so be sure to leave a comment:)

8 Comments

  1. Daniel - Classic Rock Days

    I am truly pleased to read this website posts which carries lots of helpful data, thanks for providing this kind of information.

    Reply
    1. Marek (Post author)

      Thank you Daniel:)

      Reply
  2. Jonathan Rosario

    Thanks for such a detailed and informative post Marek! I appreciate this article as getting fit is something we all face in our lives at one point or another which this addressees perfectly. What do you follow in terms of a diet?

    Reply
    1. Marek (Post author)

      Hi Jonathan:) I’m glad you like the post.
      To answer your question, I’m a big fan of intermittent fasting. I fast around 16 hours and eat 2 – 4 meals during the 8-hour eating window.
      Marek

      Reply
  3. Krystle

    This was a very informative post! I remember when I had gained weight before and was trying to figure out my caloric intake so that I can lose weight. There were a lot of times I ended up feeling so hungry because I didn’t eat enough, but I thought I already had way more than my daily limit. No worries though, I figured it out…eventually. Haha. I also tried intermittent fasting; I usually had my last meal of the day at either 6 or 7 PM, then won’t eat again until 7 or 8 AM the next morning. Now I’m just eating to maintain where I’m at.

    Reply
    1. Marek (Post author)

      Great you’ve made it…eventually!:-D There is a big truth in your comment. I think it’s rare that one sets his diet perfectly on the first try. What you calculate is just an estimation. You have to track your progress to see how you respond to changes in trainig and nutrition. As in all things in life…practise makes perfect.
      Thanks for your comment Krystle:-)

      Reply
  4. Sean

    Hi Marek, thank you for this post, I got a lot of useful information from this. How do you count calories to make sure you are having the right amount throughout the day? Thanks Sean

    Reply
    1. Marek (Post author)

      Hello Sean,
      I’m glad you like the post. I use good old Excel to count my calories/macros. Another great option is to use some kind of food tracking app like myfitnesspal. BTW your question gave me an idea for a new post, thank you;)
      Marek

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *