British Red Tractor Assurance is available on selected products.

Our high welfare British Veal is RSPCA Assured.


How To Set Up Your Diet: #4.1 Nutrient Timing & Meal Frequency, Calorie & Macro Cycling

Andy Morgan

By Andy Morgan

Andy Morgan is a top online nutrition coach and trainer. He has coached 1000+ clients from all over the world and is considered one of the most experienced and genuine guys in his field. Read more.

Before we get started you should know that I have broken this article into two separate parts – 4.1 and 4.2. This part (4.1) will cover what WILL definitely benefit you, 4.2 will discuss what MAY benefit you.

I would have really liked to have kept it all as one but it would have made for one HUGE read!

It appeals to us that something as simple as changing the timing of things can have a potent effect.

People go mad for any short cut to actually putting in some effort and marketers take advantage of this (flash a little bit of science while conveniently not talking about the bigger picture) to sell us on something new.

Any time someone presents you the nutritional importance pyramid upside-down, your BS detector should go off.

Pyramid of nutrition priorities

Credit to coach Eric Helms for the idea of organising things as a pyramid

 

The truth: Getting the timing of things right most certainly has favourable effects on body composition, however, if you gloss over the most impactful, foundation levels of your nutrition plan (calorie intake, the macro composition, and the micronutrition) you are wasting your time, money and effort.

Consider the first three stages of the nutrition pyramid as the big picture. Now we're going to look at the fourth stage (in 2 parts!) while trying to not get lost in the meaningless details.

Here's what we'll cover today in 4.1:

  • How Many Meals You Should Probably Be Eating
  • When To Eat Relative To When You Train
  • Special Considerations for Macro Timing
  • Why You Might Consider Skipping Breakfast

In 4.2, we will cover:

  • Why You Might Want To Consider Calorie/Macro Cycling
  • How to Implement Calorie/Macro Cycling
  • Example Set-ups and Calculations
  • Nutrient Timing FAQs

Notice the wording.

As with this series as a whole, this article is written in the order of importance that each addition will likely benefit you.

This is important to bear in mind because as I mentioned at the very start of this series, adherence is the most important factor in all of this – the best diet is the one you can keep – so please balance the additional complication as you work through each step, with your ability to stick to it.

And by no means feel that you have to implement all of it.

Optimal Meal Frequency – How Many Meals Should I Eat?

Suggestion : 2-4 meals when cutting, 3-4 meals when bulking

Definitions

plate clock with knife and fork

‘A meal’ in this context refers to anything from a snack (protein shake for example) to a real food meal (protein, veggies, fats and carbs). I am not including a low-calorie pre-workout supplement such as Jack3D (whatever is the trend these days), or BCAAs in this definition.

The number of meals you will want to consume is related to the volume of food you are consuming and what time of day you will train.

I suggest you eat the minimum number of meals that you can get away with without compromising your goals.

This makes things simpler, both in terms of food preparation and in terms of macro counting for the day.

Simpler -> higher adherence rate -> higher long-term success rate.

For those cutting…

It can be beneficial psychologically to have fewer meals because you can eat more at each meal. This is one of the benefits of skipping breakfast – enabling larger lunches and dinners.

One meal a day is simply not going to be optimal for lean mass retention and also forces people to make poor, calorie dense/highly palatable food choices in order to cram enough calories in a single meal.

For those bulking…

It can get to a point where it is not comfortable or practical to eat just two meals a day because of the volume of food that needs to be consumed. Consider splitting your meals into three or four meals, or having liquid meals/snacks.

Though there are no likely benefits to eating more than four meals a day, it is perfectly fine to eat more if you wish.

Note: Other than the added complication of it, there are no likely drawbacks to eating more frequently than these recommendations, so if you wish to eat more meals in a day then feel free to do so.

Meal Frequency Guideline Exceptions

fitness model Amanda Stanton winning competition

Professionals Looking For An Edge


  • Cutting: 3 meals minimum once they cross the 10% body-fat threshold.
  • Bulking: 4 meals or more, fairly evenly spaced throughout the day.

Skipping breakfast can make it easier to burn stubborn fat when dieting, but also marginally increases the risk of muscle mass losses when getting exceptionally lean. This is especially true on a rushed cut, which these guys might need to do if they find themselves on a deadline but not leaning out quickly enough.

Also, there may be marginal benefits to a higher meal frequency (greater spacing of meals throughout the day) for mass gains for these advanced trainees.

Thus, as competitors are looking for every advantage they can get on the stage, they should consider a higher meal frequency and more even spacing throughout the day than the bottom end recommendations above, assuming they have the time to do that.

We'll come back to this topic later…

Athletes Training Multiple Times A Day

In this instance, they should eat as many meals as necessary.

The two primary concerns here are:

  1. i. Recovery between workouts (mainly, glycogen replenishment) for the endurance athletes;
  2. ii. Meeting your calorie requirements for the day but without feeling so full that you feel sick during your training.

Running around on a full stomach isn't fun. So even for non-athletes, if you're going to have a kick around in the afternoon then it makes sense to eat less at lunch and have a snack later on that day.

Glycogen depletion requires roughly 90-120 minutes of continuous work on a single muscle group, and you must use those same muscles competitively within the same day need to worry about maximal speed of glycogen restoration.

If you are an endurance athlete, then some quick carbs* after your first workout of the day is a good idea. (*A sports drink or other easily digestible carb.)

If you're not an endurance athlete there is no need to worry about it.

Anyway, bearing in mind the above, let's move onto the next section.

Nutrient Timing

Nutrient Timing – When Should I Eat?

  • Within two hours of finishing your training
  • More calories post workout than before
  • Some carbs post workout
  • Not completely fasted

Definitions

  • Training' refers specifically to purposeful weight training, not random exercise.
  • Post workout' refers to the timeframe between when you train and the time you go to bed.
  • Not completely fasted' refers to training carried out in the state where there have been one or more meals consumed earlier in the day. BCAA consumption immediately prior to ‘training' counts as not completely fasted and is a viable option.

There are multiple ways you can set things up, but as long as you keep to these principles then you will be fine. I've expanded below with specific suggestions but when it comes to examples, for the sake of brevity, I've given the simplest set-up option for that training time only.

Special Considerations for Nutrient Timing

Training and Meal Timing Examples

Early Morning Training:

Take 10g BCAAs ~10 minutes pre-workout, then 10g BCAAs every two hours until you eat your first meal of the day.

Breakfast-skipping example (2 meals):

  • 06:50 10g BCAAs
  • 07:00-08:00 Training
  • 09:00 10g BCAAs
  • 11:00: 10g BCAAs
  • 13:00 Lunch ~50% calories/macros
  • 20:30 Dinner ~50% calories/macros

A slightly larger dinner than lunch is fine, and vice versa. If you're eating three meals, a snack in the afternoon with a big lunch and dinner is fine also.

Breakfast example:

  • 06:50 10g BCAAs / 06:00 25g whey shake
  • 07:00-08:00 Training
  • 08:00-09:00 Breakfast ~33% calories/macros
  • 13:00 Lunch ~33% calories/macros
  • 20:30 Dinner ~33% calories/macros

The meals don't have to be split into thirds, so if you prefer to have one bigger than the others then please feel free to shift around your meal split.

Reasons for the BCAAs (and BCAAs vs whey) explained here by Martin Berkhan, who was pretty much the key man in bringing fasted training to the main stream by justifying it with science™.

Morning Training:

Breakfast-skipping example:

  • 08:50 10g BCAAs
  • 09:00-10:00 Training
  • 11:00: 10g BCAAs
  • 13:00 Lunch ~50% calories/macros
  • 20:30 Dinner ~50% calories/macros

A slightly larger dinner than lunch is fine, and vice versa. If you're eating three meals, a snack in the afternoon with a big lunch and dinner is fine also.

Breakfast example:

  • 07:00 Breakfast ~25% calories/macros
  • 09:00-10:00 Training
  • 13:00 Lunch ~35% calories/macros
  • 20:30 Dinner ~40% calories/macros

NB: I'm suggesting a lower calorie intake for breakfast so that you don't have to train on a full stomach.

Afternoon Training:

Late Afternoon

With late afternoon training the time between the end of training and dinner is greater than 2 hours, so we have a snack.

Breakfast-skipping example:

  • 13:00 Lunch (~35% calories/macros)
  • 17:00-18:00 Training
  • 18:00-18:30 Snack (10-15% calories/macros)
  • 20:30 Dinner (remaining calories/macros)

Breakfast example:

  • 08:00 Breakfast (~30% calories/macros)
  • 13:00 Lunch (~30% calories/macros)
  • 17:00-18:00 Training
  • 18:00-18:30 Snack (10-15% calories/macros)
  • 20:30 Dinner (remaining calories/macros)

Early Afternoon

With early afternoon training the time between the end of training and dinner is considerably greater than 2 hours, so we have a meal.

Breakfast-skipping example:

  • 13:00 Snack (~20% calories/macros)
  • 15:00-16:00 Training
  • 16:30 Afternoon Meal (20-40% calories/macros)
  • 20:30 Dinner (remaining calories/macros)

Breakfast example:

  • 08:00 Breakfast (~25% calories/macros)
  • 13:00 Snack (~10% calories/macros)
  • 15:00-16:00 Training
  • 16:30 Afternoon Meal (~25-35% calories/macros)
  • 20:30 Dinner (remaining calories/macros)

NB: The time between the end of training and dinner is considerably greater than 2 hours, so we have the meal.

Evening Training:

There is no need to have a snack or shake post workout as the evening meal comes within two hours of the end of training.

Breakfast-skipping example:

  • 13:00 Lunch (~40% calories/macros)
  • 18:00-19:00 Training
  • 20:30 Dinner (~60% calories/macros)

Breakfast example:

  • 08:00 Breakfast (~25-30% calories/macros)
  • 13:00 Lunch (~30% calories/macros)
  • 18:00-19:00 Training
  • 20:30 Dinner (remaining calories/macros)

Special Considerations for Nutrient Timing

Avoid Extreme Macro Partitioning

In the above examples you'll see that I have suggested generally that you split your macros in the same ratio that you split your calories. This is because it doesn't really make any difference.

Despite this you'll find some fancy ideas out there such as: only eat fats and protein earlier in the day, and only carbs and protein later.

This is not likely to have any nutrient partitioning benefits, and will threaten adherence by making your diet more complicated and restrictive.

Some people find that carbs make them sleepy

If this is you, you can use this to your advantage by positioning your final meal of the day nearer to bed time, or increasing the proportion or carbs in this meal.

carbs
  • Breakfast eaters that feel lethargic mid-morning should consider increasing the protein and fat content of their breakfast and reducing carb intake.

    Simply adjust the latter meals of the day to maintain the macro balance overall. (Of course, some people simply love a lot of carbs at breakfast and if that's you, you feel good afterwards, and you can make it fit your macros for the day then go for it.)
  • A lot of carbs at lunch may cause afternoon lethargy, that feeling of wanting to pass out at your desk.

    If that's the case then try increasing veg intake or changing your choice of carb (swap that box of cereal for some potatoes or pasta for example) at lunch. Or try shifting your intake of carbs so that you have more later in the day.
  • You could also consider breaking your lunch into two meals – a smaller lunch and an afternoon snack.

Large Meals Make You Sweat?

This is not so much of a problem during the day but a small minority of people find they have issues getting off to sleep at night. You could try repositioning your carb intake to have less in the last meal of the day, eat the last meal of the day earlier, or eat less total calories in that last meal (more in an earlier meal).

Clearing Up the Nonsense Surrounding Intermittent Fasting

bodybuilder fasting

The increasing popularity of Intermittent Fasting has led to a flood of new gurus looking to profit from it and the proliferation of nonsense such as:

  • Calories don't matter as long as you eat within an 8 hour window.”
  • “Your body actually wants you to gorge on junk food in the evenings after your workouts as it will shuttle the nutrients into the muscle and not be stored as fat!”

These people who make a living by selling books and e-books don't live in the real world where they are actually held accountable to client results, so it's very easy for them to talk utter BS.

I often use IF with my clients in helping them get very lean because I think it has advantages for achieving this. However, as the order of this series of articles should tell you, the IF wasn't the deal-breaker; they would have likely gotten good results without it.

Should I Skip Breakfast or Not?

Why You Might Consider Skipping Breakfast


  1. 1. Simplicity with meal planning and counting macros.

  2. 2. Increased control over hunger, and greater satisfaction from bigger meals. If you have previously been eating breakfast it will take around 4-7 days for your body to get used to the new meal pattern and hunger pangs in the morning to subside.

  3. 3. Potential to help oxidise more stubborn fat. This is only relevant to those that are (or have gotten) lean to the point of visible abs, and a looking to get completely shredded.

(This is why cardio is rarely needed with a well-executed IF protocol in my experience, though I must point out that there is little clinical evidence to support this yet.)

Why You Might Not Want To Skip Breakfast


1. IF increases the risk of muscle losses. This is only really a concern when looking to get to exceptionally lean levels of body fat like you see below or even leaner. As long as you have your calorie intake and macros set up right as per this guide.

No cardio abs

The leaner we get, the greater the potential for muscle loss with a reduced meal frequency. It's important to put this in perspective and weigh up the pros and cons.

If you eat a greater meal frequency and spread your meals further across the day instead of skipping breakfast, your risk of muscle mass loss is minimised, but you add in more complication to your diet.

Meal preparation takes more time, macro counting is incrementally harder, and you likely have to add in cardio earlier to get shredded lean.

The greater the calorie deficit and the leaner you are, the greater the risk of muscle loss. But if you take things slow and steady then the risk is small.

food prep I've coached over 1000 people with the majority of them choosing to skip breakfast and I can't say I have noticed it causing any lean tissue losses.

Consider also that the clients you see in the picture above skipped breakfast, ate twice a day, and did not use any cardio to get into that condition. I can't say that we detected any muscle mass losses there either.


However, it's important to consider that they were recreational trainees without a deadline, not professional or serious amateur competitors looking to get any potential possible edge over the competition.

In that case it would be better to go with the more conservative approach and have a higher meal frequency (assuming they have the time and will to do it).

Also, if someone is in a rush to get into stage ready condition the deficit they will need will be higher than ideal, so a greater meal frequency should be considered so that they stand a better chance of holding onto the muscle mass.

2. Greater meal frequency/meal spacing throughout the day may lead to more muscle growth when bulking. I'd emphasise that this is marginal, and most people naturally find themselves forced to eat more than just two meals a day when bulking anyway.

plates while fasting

Final Points

If you try skipping breakfast a few times and either don't like it, feel good eating it, or simply feel much better when eating breakfast… Then eat breakfast!

If you have a history of disordered eating then you probably shouldn't be doing any form of fasting as it can be used as an excuse to legitimise your behaviour.

I'll end this with a quote from Alan Aragon, as I think it sums up the attitude most people would benefit from taking when it comes to their nutrition:

In the process of obsessively seeking out the “perfect” foods, food timing, food combinations (and separations), and food avoidance, the big picture gets buried in the meaningless details.
Alan Aragon, from the AARR, Feb 2009.


Coming up in 4.2, I'll be discussing the changes you could make to your diet that MAY benefit your fat loss goals, including:

  • Why You Might Want To Consider Calorie/Macro Cycling
  • How to Implement Calorie/Macro Cycling
  • Example Set-ups and Calculations
  • Nutrient Timing FAQs

In the meantime, if you’ve any questions – feel free to hit me up in the comments! – Thanks, Andy.

Andy Morgan

About Andy

Andy Morgan is a top online nutrition coach and trainer. He has coached 1000+ clients from all over the world and is considered one of the most experienced and genuine guys in his field.

Andy is from Birmingham, but is now based in Osaka, Japan. He cuts through the industry nonsense to show people how to transform their physiques with the minimal effective dose. Andy's guides are founded in the teachings of some of the best science-based guys in the industry, then refined and developed through his personal experiences working with clients. These guides are all available for free on his website, RippedBody.jp where you can find out more about his online coaching also.

Here's his Twitter and Facebook page.

These might be of interest to you...

Andy Morgan's article on Micros and Water Matt Sallis - Men's Health Delicious Healthy Recipes
Micros & Water
Just as important
as Macros?
Men's Health Cover Star
Matt Sallis
From scrawny to buff!
Prep your meals to
perfection with our
fab recipes!
Read full article here... Find out how he got there... Explore our menus here...