We’re going to dismantle 3 of the biggest lies in the world of performance nutrition. Knowing the truth about how your body responds to when you eat and how much you consume will arm you with the knowledge you need to succeed at the highest levels.
When I look back on it now, I used to say some really dumb things like:
- “Eating small, more frequent meals increases your metabolism and is better for fat loss.”
- “Eating carbs before bed makes you retain bodyfat.”
- “You can’t absorb more than 30g of protein in a single meal.”
The good news is, I’ve learned. The bad news is many who are still unknowingly (or stubbornly) buying into these outdated and unfounded beliefs around nutrient timing. So, what do we really know about meal timing? Does it even matter? The answers will shock most of you and straight up shatter most commonly held myths.
Beyond the science, I have implemented these nutrition strategies time and time again. I have seen the real world results with everyone from top-level UFC athletes preparing for a title fight to middle-aged women looking to drop 10 pounds.
The belief behind eating smaller and more frequent meals throughout the day most likely comes from the idea that we would burn calories through the increased frequency of digestion. While this is correct, the impact you might expect is not likely what you would think. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the amount of energy (calories) required for our bodies to process and store the food that we eat. Protein requires the most energy to process with a TEF of 25-30%. Carbs have a TEF of 5-10% and fat, the easiest macronutrient for our bodies to process has a TEF of 2-3% (Westerterp, K. 2004), (S. Du et al. 2014) .10, 11
With TEF in mind, it makes sense that the more food your body digests, the more your metabolism must increase to process it. That is, until you consider the total calories eaten in the day. As is a constant theme in my ramblings, you can’t cheat the science of calories! If you burn more calories than you eat, you lose weight, always. So, if our goal is to lose weight, we have to have a calorie goal that will get us there. About 10% of your total calories burned during a day will come from TEF.
Let’s say you are eating 3,000 calories per day. If you eat 3 meals a day at 1,000 calories for each meal (total 3,000), you burn 100 calories each meal due to TEF for a net of 300 calories (100 x 3). If you eat 8 small meals per day at 375 calories each meal (total 3,000), you burn 37.50 calories each meal due to TEF for a net of 300 calories (37.50 x8).
“10% of your total calories burned during a day will come from TEF”
I’m not saying there aren’t advantages to smaller, more frequent meals per day, I’m simply saying the reasoning that’s often used isn’t sound. There are many reasons why one may prefer to eat more frequently including increased satiety, or feeling more energetic throughout the day with a more constant intake of nutrients. In contrast some people, and especially those with a history of binge eating, may find it more emotionally satisfying to sit down to a larger meal, as research has shown (Gibson, 2006). 2
Also, have you ever tried to tell an ER Nurse that they need to eat 4-5 meals during a workday to hit their goals? I have, and the only thing less likely than them finding the time to do so, is for them to be satisfied with their progress. Protein supplements like DIESEL, PERFECT and CREED help close this gap by providing an easy and ultra-convenient way to get high protein (and as mentioned, high TEF) food frequently – but even so, the struggle remains.
Protein supplements are great at creating greater satiety (making you feel more full) and (because they are both convenient and delicious), you are so much more likely to succeed. Ultimately, the number of meals or supplements you consume in a day should be determined by what will increase the likelihood of you hitting your calorie goals for a sustained period of time; that’s it.
Another doozey I used to swear by was that you should avoid eating carbs right before bed, because doing so will cause you to hold more bodyfat. The thought process is that since your metabolism will be lowering for sleep and that carbohydrates in the food won’t be burned as efficiently when you’re not using them as readily. This one makes a lot of sense on the surface – carbs are the most efficient source of energy and therefore should be prioritized around workout times when metabolism is “high” versus when it is “low”.
With that in mind, it only makes sense that we don’t need carbohydrates prior to when we need energy the least. Obviously you can’t workout during sleep, but what may surprise you is that there seems to be NO difference in your metabolic rate when you’re asleep and your resting metabolic rate when you’re awake (Seale 1999 and Schoffelen).4
“NO difference in your metabolic rate when your asleep versus when you’re awake!”
To even further cast doubt on the carbs before bed naysayers, a study published by the Journal of Obesity compared the 6 month results of two groups on a calorie restricted diet. The groups consisted of 78 police officers with a BMI > 30 (obese). While both groups maintained a calorie deficit, one group consumed carbohydrates evenly throughout the day while the other ate 80% of their total carbohydrates at night.
The results of the study found that while both groups saw weight loss (duh- calorie deficit) the group who ate most of their carbohydrates at night had significantly more weight loss, saw a greater reduction in abdominal fat, and a greater loss of fat mass (Sofer 2011).8 The reasoning? This group reported higher levels of satiety, thus making it easier to stay on track the following day.
So does mean that more carbs at night is a cheat code to fat loss? Well, no, it simply means that no matter how you manipulate carbohydrates, weight loss will be achieved while in a calorie deficit (McMurray, 2007).3 Furthermore, it demonstrates that there may be some advantages to eating carbohydrates later in the day. It’s important to note however that this also doesn’t mean everyone will benefit from consuming late-night carbohydrates. For instance, those suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) typically find it best not to eat in the hours before bedtime.
I’m proud to say that the myth of one’s body only being able to absorb a set amount of protein at a given meal is one I called BS on very early in my professional career. When you think about it, how much sense does it make that you, me, a swimsuit model, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are all capable of absorbing the same amount of protein despite having vastly different activity levels, body sizes and amounts of lean body mass? It kind of feels like this myth is busted already, doesn’t it? Well, research has arrived to the same conclusion with absorption being dependent on body mass, among other factors (Schoenfeld, 2018).4 Let’s dig deep, but first we need to discuss the difference between protein absorption and protein synthesis.
“Protein needs depend on many factors and are completely unique!”
When that chicken breast enters your stomach, it’s met with hydrochloric acid and enzymes which break it down into amino acids. These amino acids will be linked by peptides and moved into your small intestine where they will be distributed to various parts of the body. This is where many become misled…
The small intestine is only capable of transporting a certain number of amino acids into the bloodstream within a given period of time (Broer, 2018).1 To make matters even more iffy, this rate of absorption is different for different types of protein. This is where the idea of only being able to use a specific amount of protein per meal comes in and has led many to believe that anything over that amount is wasted and, perhaps simply sitting in the stomach just waiting for the next trip to the toilet.
What they may not realize is, as this is happening the pancreas, liver and gallbladder are flooding the duodenum with enzymes and bile that lower the acidity of the protein, thus allowing more time to break down protein into smaller amino acids. Furthermore, a hormone is released that slows down intestinal contractions allowing even more time for absorption (Storr, 2003).9 Once the amino acids enter the blood, they will be utilized for tissue growth and repair through protein synthesis, while some are stored for future use.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows the effects of protein absorption in intermittent fasting (Soeters, 2003).7 In this study, subjects fasted for 20 hours followed by a 4-hour eating window wherein which they consumed all of their days protein, carbohydrates and fat following an isocaloric macronutrient ratio (33% Protein, 33% Carbohydrates, 33% Fat). The study concluded that intermittent fasting did not result in a change in protein metabolism.
So, with this in mind it should be clear that you, me, a swimsuit model, and anyone named after a rock, have varying degrees of need in terms of amino acids. Our age, body composition, daily activity level, and exercise routines will all determine the exact need for amino acids in our body and will therefore impact protein synthesis.
As is common among most misguided nutrition myths, all of these make sense on the surface. The problem is the science of nutrition is quite complex. The truth is usually found between layers of physiology and nutritional biochemistry which are rarely pulled back by broscientists. So, before you go changing your diet to fit inside a box of rules spend some time in the research on a subject or better yet, speak with a nutrition expert.
- Bröer, S., & Fairweather, S. J. (2018). Amino Acid Transport Across the Mammalian Intestine. Comprehensive Physiology, 343–373. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cphy.c170041
- Leigh Gibson, E. (2006). Emotional influences on food choice: Sensory, physiological and psychological pathways. Physiology & Behavior, 89(1), 53–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2006.01.024
- McMurray, R., Proctor, C., & Wilson, W. (1991). Effect of Caloric Deficit and Dietary Manipulation on Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 12(02), 167–172. https://doi.org/10.1055/s-2007-1024662
- Schoenfeld, B. J., & Aragon, A. A. (2018). How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
- Seale, J., & Conway, J. (1999). Relationship between overnight energy expenditure and BMR measured in a room-sized calorimeter. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 53(2), 107–111. https://doi.org/10.1038/sj.ejcn.1600685
- Schoffelen, P. F., & Westerterp, K. R. (2008). Intra-individual variability and adaptation of overnight- and sleeping metabolic rate. Physiology & Behavior, 94(2), 158–163. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.12.013
- Soeters, M. R., Lammers, N. M., Dubbelhuis, P. F., Ackermans, M., Jonkers-Schuitema, C. F., Fliers, E., Sauerwein, H. P., Aerts, J. M., & Serlie, M. J. (2009). Intermittent fasting does not affect whole-body glucose, lipid, or protein metabolism. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90(5), 1244–1251. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2008.27327
- Sofer, S., Eliraz, A., Kaplan, S., Voet, H., Fink, G., Kima, T., & Madar, Z. (2011). Greater Weight Loss and Hormonal Changes After 6 Months Diet With Carbohydrates Eaten Mostly at Dinner. Obesity, 19(10), 2006–2014. https://doi.org/10.1038/oby.2011.48
- Storr, M. (2003). Endogenous CCK depresses contractile activity within the ascending myenteric reflex pathway of rat ileum. Neuropharmacology, 44(4), 524–532. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0028-3908(03)00028-5
- Westerterp, K. (2004). Diet induced thermogenesis. Nutr Metab (London), 1(5). https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-1-5
- Du S, Rajjo T, Santosa S, Jensen MD. The thermic effect of food is reduced in older adults. Horm Metab Res. 2014;46(5):365-9. doi:10.1055/s-0033-1357205
Author: Tyler Minton
Tyler “Melee” Minton is one of the most recognized Nutrition Coaches in the UFC. Having worked with hundreds of professional mixed martial artists including many world champions, Tyler’s coaching services are sought after by professional athletes and the general population alike. Applying his education and experience, Tyler promotes a no-nonsense, science-based approach to nutrition and it’s why he’s part of the PERFECT Sports Advisory Board.