You’ve made your way all the way through this point, excellent job! You deserve a cookie. Well, not literally. You deserve a broccoli bunch! All jokes aside, this chapter will cover the last segment of designing your diet to make everything perfect including nutrient timing and meal frequency.
Some of the questions we will answer are:
- Does nutrient timing matter?
- Does meal frequency matter?
- When should I eat?
- How should I split up my macros?
- How many calories should I have at time X?
- What foods should I eat?
This is not a definitive list of what shall be discussed, but that covers most of the remaining topics. In this article, we will answer what I think are the most important, yet confusing questions: Are nutrient timing and meal frequency important? The short answer is: yes, they are.
Note: At this point, you must have your daily caloric requirements, ideal protein intake, ideal fat intake and ideal carb intake calculated. You will use those numbers to figure out how to organize them throughout the day for maximum muscle gain and fat loss.
Nutrient timing refers to the times at which you eat your macronutrients. Duh! However, is such meticulousness necessary? If you want the most resorts out of your efforts, yes. So, why does nutrient timing matter?
Protein and leucine
In the protein article, I explained that amino acids are the building blocks of protein. I also indicated that there are essential amino acids; your body needs from external sources like your diet, and non-essential amino acids; your body can make those from essential amino acids. Now, out of those 9 essential amino acids, we have what are called Branched-chain amino acids, BCAA’s for short. BCAA’s refer to 3 essential amino acids: valine, leucine and isoleucine.
Those 3 amino acids are the MOST powerful and anabolic amino acids. Meaning they have the power to stimulate muscle growth through a pathway called mTor (mammalian target for rapamycin). When mTor is activated, your body starts the process of protein synthesis; muscle building. Your body basically gets the hint that you now have enough energy to spend on an energy-demanding process such as muscle building.
Out of those 3 amino acids (and all amino acids), leucine is the most powerful. There is a certain threshold of leucine that must be reached before your body can start protein synthesis. Pay attention! So, when we consume an adequate amount of leucine through eating an adequate amount of protein and we reach our leucine threshold, our bodies active the mTor pathway and your body start expending energy to build new muscle tissue (protein synthesis). And this is why nutrient timing is important.
Let’s look at two scenarios:
- Jack has his caloric and macronutrient requirements calculated. Due to Jack’s laziness or lifestyle or whatever, he decides that he will split those calories and macros over 2 large meals: breakfast at 9 am and dinner 9 pm. Since Jack will most likely consume a good amount of protein and thus leucine during those meals, he will most likely reach his leucine threshold and thus activate protein synthesis. Not bad! But, what about the time in between?
- Frank has his caloric and macronutrient requirements calculated. Frank is more meticulous than Jack and wants to improve his body composition to the max. Thus, Frank splits up his macros over 4 meals from 11 am through 11 pm. This means that Frank will probably eat every 4 hours or so. Given that Frank will eat an adequate amount of protein at each meal and thus reach his leucine threshold, he will activate his mTor pathway more often than Jack.
Who do you think will build more muscle and lose more fat? Frank will!
This is not to suggest that Jack won’t build muscle and lose fat, but when leucine threshold is reached more often throughout the day, and thus mTor is activated more often, the results are amplified. And we are all about idealism here! We want MAXIMUM results, not mediocre.
Note: Don’t think that you will have more gains by having 10 meals, though! This is because if you divide your calories and macros (especially protein) over so many meals, you will most likely not hit your leucine threshold since you will have so little protein during each meal. Thus, you won’t have enough leucine to hit your threshold.
Also, when you reach your leucine threshold, mTor stays activated for approximately 3-4 hours. So, there is no point of having 2-3 meals during a 3-4 hours’ period.
So, how do I reach my leucine threshold?
Excellent question, internet warrior! Current research suggests that to maximally activate mTor, one should consume about 3.2 grams of leucine. Any more leucine than that won’t activate mTor any further. More is not always better, guys. Remember, there is a threshold, meaning, there is a “ceiling” of how much is needed to do something.
How much protein?
First, let me get something out of the way. It has been long speculated than when you consume a lot of protein at one time, your body uses what it needs and gets rid of the remainder. That is a myth! Your body will absorb anything you throw it. Keep in mind that protein is not exclusive to muscle building.
Protein is necessary for all bodily functions, organs, tissue repair…etc. So, even if your muscles don’t use all the protein you throw at it, your organs will appreciate it. However, eating a lot protein WILL NOT activate mTor any further. Two different things. So, eating a lot of protein may be beneficial to your organs and overall health, but it won’t necessarily yield more muscle mass! There is a limit to everything.
So, we only need 3.2 grams of leucine to fully hit the leucine threshold, right? How much does that translate into? If you ingest 15 grams of essential amino acids, you will most likely get 3.2 grams of leucine. The issue is that leucine concentration varies per protein source. So, chicken breast has a different concentration of leucine than beef or eggs. Don’t lose sleep on memorizing how much leucine each food has, though! Just eat an adequate amount of protein at each meal.
From my experience and observations, the following rule applies:
Consuming 30-45 grams of protein at a time will most likely make you hit your leucine threshold.
Meaning, for MOST people trying to build muscle or lose fat, consuming between 30-45 grams of protein at a meal will most likely saturate their leucine threshold and thus maximally activate protein synthesis through the mTor pathway. This number varies from person to person due to different protein requirements, weights…etc. However, this applies to most people and you will more than likely be fine following that rule.
Now that I emphasized why nutrient timing matters, what about meal frequency? How many meals should you eat?
I intentionally explained nutrient timing and its importance in advance because understanding that will help you understand why meal frequency matters as well. So, we said that we need a certain threshold of leucine to fully activate our muscle building mechanisms, right?
Go back and read the “Jack and Frank” scenario once again and think which one will stimulate more muscle growth.
If you disperse your macros and calories twice a day through two meals, you will probably fully stimulate muscle growth only twice a day. But, if you disperse your calories and macros over 4 meals, you will then activate your mTor more often and thus start up protein synthesis more often! GIVEN THAT YOU CONSUME ENOUGH PROTEIN AND THUS LEUCINE AT EACH MEAL! I cannot emphasize this enough.
Thus, eating 10 meals every day and eating 20 grams of protein at each meal won’t really stimulate more muscle growth. This is also due to mTor’s “refractory period” which lasts for about 3-4 hours.
This means that when you hit your leucine threshold and activate mTor, mTor (protein synthesis) stays activated for about 3-4 hours and thus further stimulation during that time is not needed.
As a rule of thumb, you are better off dividing your calories and macronutrients over 3-4 meals. That way, you will hit your leucine threshold every time you eat a meal and thus an adequate amount of protein and leucine (3.2 grams at a time). Eating 3-4 meals means that you will most likely eat a meal every 3-4 hours which is perfect because that’s how long mTor stays activated anyway before it slows down or gets turned off again.
This way, you will take advantage of activating protein synthesis maximally throughout the day and not obsess over preparing or eating so many meals when you have other things to do.
In addition to maximally stimulating muscle growth more often throughout the day, eating 3-4 medium to large meals will help keep you satiated. Let’s face it, if you have a caloric budget of 3000 calories per day and you divide those calories over 4 meals, you would then eat 750 calories at each meal. Given that you are eating real high quality food, not processed crap, 750 calories are a lot of calories! And you will be more than satisfied and full eating those 750 calories.
This is even more beneficial when you are trying to lose fat/weight because controlling your appetite on a diet is one of the most important components of a successful diet! If you diet smart, you won’t have to be hungry or torture yourself while losing fat and getting shredded.
Also, reaching your leucine threshold and activating mTor while dieting will help you retain muscle mass while maximizing fat loss. In fact, you will probably end up recomping. Meaning, you will end up building muscle, increasing your strength and maximizing fat loss! Sweet!
One more benefit you get with distributing your meals even throughout the day is better nutrient partitioning. Remember insulin sensitivity and insulin spiking? Well, if we go back to the example of consuming two very large meals across the day, consuming so many calories and macronutrients at one shot will cause a massive insulin spike. Your body will want to remove all those nutrients and macronutrients from your blood, so in turn it’ll release a lot of insulin to shuttle nutrients away from your blood stream and dispose them into either muscle tissue or fat tissue. We want the former, obviously.
But, there is a threshold for everything, remember? So, your muscles may need (for instance) 40 grams of protein and 10 grams of carbs, if you provide them with more than those numbers, your muscles have no reason to let those nutrients in. Thus, instead of causing an incredibly high insulin spike once in the morning and once at night, distributing your meals evenly across the day will enhance nutrient partitioning and won’t cause your body to release too much insulin which could later cause some insulin resistance.
NOTE: This is not to say that if you don’t strategically plan your diet as outlined in this guide you won’t build muscle or lose fat. But, we want maximum results. Thus, we are always discussing the most ideal approach to reach your goals as fast as possible while improving your health and keeping you sane.
Nutrient timing and circadian rhythm
As you probably know, circadian rhythm refers to one’s internal “biological clock” that the body uses to organize and perform daily functions/tasks. You might be wondering what the heck does your circadian rhythm have to do with body composition, but trust me, it matters more than you think!
The human body always loves homeostasis. Meaning, our bodies always want to remain at balance. It doesn’t really like change that much. After all, its main goal is to survive and keep you alive. You’ve probably noticed that when you sleep at a given time for a few days, your body eventually adapts and whenever that time of the day comes, you feel sleepy and you end up knocking out. That’s your biological clock managing and acknowledging that it’s time for you to sleep. Additionally, you almost always end up waking up at the same time every day without the need to set up an alarm, correct?
Same thing applies to training and nutrient timing! When you constantly eat at the same times every day, or at least within the same time periods, your body PRIMES itself to this same function every single day at the same time! So, if you usually eat at 3 o’clock, you will probably automatically feel hungry around that time and your body will have programmed itself to eat at that time every day.
Your biological clock, or circadian rhythm is now optimized to eat at specific time and thus it has primed every function involved for proper execution. As a result, your digestive system will be 100% ready to fully digest the food you consume within that time frame. This will maximize nutrients and macronutrients uptake and utilization which will yield better body composition and overall health.
Additionally, if you stimulate protein synthesis at the same times throughout the day every day, your body will appreciate it and happily optimize the functions involved. This will yield more muscle mass and more fat loss for you!
As usual, you have the right to be skeptical and you are always welcome to do your own research! I will cite two helpful studies, though. 1 & 2.
Now that I convinced you why you should pay attention to nutrient timing and meal frequency as opposed to the naysayers who play it by the ear out there, we will then discuss what foods you should base your diet on for maximum gains, satiety and sustainability.
Henselmans, M. (2012, May 16). Nutrient Timing Endures: Circadian Rhythm Protein Timing. Retrieved from Human Engine: http://www.humanengine.com/index.php/articles/nutrition/item/nutrient-timing-endures-circadian-rhythm-protein-timing
Lentein. (2016). LEUCINE THRESHOLD: WHAT IT IS AND HOW TO GET THERE. Retrieved from Lentein: http://www.lentein.com/leucine-threshold-what-it-is-and-how-to-get-there/
Norton, D. L. (2012, August 10). Layne Norton PhD on protein: how much and how often? Retrieved from spotmebro.com: http://spotmebro.com/layne-norton-phd-on-protein-how-much-and-how-often/