When should I eat?
Does it matter when I consume the bulk of my calories?
Should I skip breakfast?
These are all questions that might cross your mind when it comes to planning your meal schedule.
With trashy journalism pulling studies out to make a headline (like this piece), it's difficult not to be confused about when the best time is to eat.
The contradictions are confusing. I get it.
That's why I wanted to do a full breakdown on this topic, so you know once and for all if it's something you should spend your time worrying about, and what to focus on.
Let’s jump straight in.
We've been told for the longest time that eating more calories at night makes us fat.
Where did this come from?
Logic would have that if you're consuming calories/carbs in the evening, and then sitting or sleeping, then you're not doing anything with them. They're just sitting there, not being burned, and being shuffled straight into your fat stores.
And some studies even back that up (study) showing that our body finds it more comfortable to burn carbs in the morning, and fat in the evening.
Then the opposite became popular.
Eating carbs at night and limiting them in the morning was the new trend of eating. And for a good reason, studies showed that eating carbs at night led to fat-loss (study).
So which one is correct and does it make a difference for building muscle?
If you're like most modern-day folks, then the morning is where you get your fair of share of carbs in.
Be that in the form of cereal, toast or even waffles.
When most switch to a healthier diet, they change this up with foods like porridge (oatmeal), fruit, or fruit juice.
Breakfast is an important meal to start the day, there’s no doubt about it.
How important exactly can be dependent on your goals.
Breakfast has always been advocated as a must for anyone who wants to lose weight.
However, most of the claims around this originate from the observational evidence (study) that - due to eating early in the day - you’re less likely to over consume calories later on.
The opposite, skipping breakfast (intermittent fasting) is also seen as a miracle weight loss strategy, however, this is mainly due to the fact that calories are lower (from skipping them) instead of it being caused directly by the timing.
These results go against what has been regularly promoted by many official nutritional guidelines, which encourage eating breakfast as one of the key strategies for maintaining a healthy weight. This recommendation is based primarily on observational data showing an association between breakfast consumption and lower weight and fat mass.
However, there are some benefits outside of weight loss that we might want to pay attention to, particularly in the field of health.
Blood sugar control is better in the morning, meaning we can get away with a higher-calorie breakfast (study) and one study even found that fasting until noon, increased the rise in blood sugar after lunch and dinner in people with type-2 diabetes. (study)
Meal scheduling can have an impact on your body clock (study), also known as the circadian rhythm and benefit those who have circadian rhythm disorders, shift workers, and transmeridian travellers.
And lastly, it's been proven to help with concentration and brain function (study); however, this evidence is primarily linked to children.
But how about eating breakfast for muscle growth?
As mentioned in our article about protein, you can only trigger protein synthesis with up to 20-40g of protein (study, study). Depending on your protein needs, having a small amount of protein, or skipping breakfast all together, leads to you missing out on potential muscle growth.
Not only that, but as carbs are a crucial macro for muscle growth and easy to consume in high abundance (study), you could be missing out on an opportunity to get your carb macros in.
All by skipping breakfast.
If you habitually train several hours after eating a carbohydrate-dominant breakfast, skipping this might negatively impact your performance in the gym (study).
Having a lack, or lesser amount of carbs in your breakfast comes down to 3 things:
- Can you make up for it elsewhere in your diet? Can you consume more carbs at night, post-workout or in between meals as snacks?
- Do you have bad insulin sensitivity? (if you're a true hard-gainer/ectomorph then you probably handle this well, however, if you're skinny-fat, then it can be an issue)
- Does it generally make you feel sluggish? If so, try switching out your carb sources for slower digesting carbs. If that doesn't change things, then skip them. Focusing and feeling good in the morning is a great way to live a healthier, more productive life.
Personally, this is where I like to consume the bulk of my calories.
Big meals with friends and family, no awkward situations when I'm out and overall better sleep.
But what does the science say?
This is where things get interesting, because many of the benefits attached to an early breakfast have also been shown to apply to the dinner group in other research too.
The main points revolved around its effect on body composition, primarily fat-loss (study).
According to research, insulin sensitivity peaks in the morning, giving your body the trigger to store glucose both into fat and muscles. Which is why consuming carbs and calories later in the day most likely became popular (study).
One study looked at the effects of consuming 70% of daily calories in the evening vs morning. The results showed that the participants who had the bulk of their calories in the evening not only lost more fat, but also less muscle than those who ate in the morning (study).
Another study published in 2011 split 70 Israeli police officers into two groups, the first group ate carbs throughout the day, and the second ate the bulk of their carbs at dinner time.
Researchers found that the second group experienced less hunger, lost 4.4 more pounds, and experienced a higher body mass index (BMI) compared to the group who ate carbs throughout the day. (study)
In the same study, the second group benefited from reduced inflammation, glucose control, and improved blood lipids too (study).
Not only that, but a 2015 study showed that Type I diabetics, and those with glycogen storage disease need to consume calories before bed for survival (study).
The main issue revolving research on meal scheduling is that the majority is not geared towards muscle growth. The participants who have been studied are far from ectomorph status. Instead, they're typically your average joe, or the opposite, athletes.
As you can see, research is contradictory and all over the place with studies leading to the same conclusion (benefits) with different routes of getting there.
So which one is most important for muscle growth?
The reality is, neither is majorly more beneficial than the other, be that for muscle growth, fat loss or overall wellbeing.
What's more important is to rely on strong evidence.
This is the reason why meal schedules have become even more popular in recent years.
We were taught for so long that breakfast was the most important meal of the day (and some studies show it still is, including this source).
However, the idea of skipping it to receive a lot of health benefits seems pretty convincing, huh?
Research around intermittent fasting has shown a lot of health, and fat loss benefits like:
- Reduced appetite which can aid following a calorie controlled diet.
- Less muscle loss compared to a standard diet.
- Increased production of human growth hormone (HGH).
- Improved insulin sensitivity.
- Greater cell repair.
With all of these benefits, why don't I recommend that you follow intermittent fasting? After all, everyone and their mum seems to be prescribing it as a fat loss and muscle growth miracle.
- For all the reasons I recommend eating often (covered under meal frequency). It’s easier to consume enough calories and reach the level of protein synthesis you need for results.
- Less chronic cortisol issues when not skipping breakfast, which means more testosterone and fewer health issues overall (study).
- It reduces appetite (study) which we desperately need as skinny guys, to get in enough calories to grow.
- Less likely to develop an eating disorder (source) although tracking anything religiously and following any kind of dogmatic approach to eating needs to be careful.
- Another problem with skipping breakfast is the limit on muscle glycogen levels, which aids muscle growth and performance.
While there is no data showing that eating pre-workout doesn’t improve performance, skipping breakfast has been shown to decrease resistance training volume after an overnight fast, especially in habitual consumers of breakfast. (study)
Of course, for such a big topic, there's so much that could be said about this...
The main thing that’s necessary, regardless of when you eat, is including protein to maximise protein synthesis, and getting in calories throughout the day.
I don't recommend skipping breakfast or saving all your calories to eat until the later part of the day. Regardless of the meal frequency approach you choose, skipping meals is only going to make it harder to consume the large number of calories needed to build muscle. It would be tough for someone with a bigger stomach, nevermind an ectomorph (study).
- Split your calories evenly throughout the day. Protein should be a minimum of 20g in each meal (as that's when protein synthesis starts to trigger) and over the course of the days, no matter what plan you follow, should be aiming for your protein requirements.
- Struggle with a big breakfast? If you struggle with a substantial breakfast, and it affects your morning, lower the calories intake and move these calories throughout the day by adding them to snacks or dinner.
- Nighttime feasts are great for helping sleep. It’s also when most of us want to eat plenty of food with our families. Thankfully, as an ectomorph, a big meal at the end of the day will only help you reach your goals.
Is changing when you consume your calories worth the effort?
Nope, pretty far from it.
There's not enough evidence to show that consuming the bulk of your calories at breakfast, or lunch, increases or decreases muscle growth beyond:
- Getting in protein more often
- Consuming more or fewer calories
Aside from these two things, it comes down to personal preference, and whether you prefer having a bigger breakfast or dinner.
I prefer a bigger dinner. But you might have a weaker appetite and prefer to spread your calories and macros evenly throughout the day.
That’s totally fine.
Either way, you're guaranteed to hit your goals instead of starting light and struggling as the day goes on.