What time should you eat meals to gain muscle? The complex science, explained – Inverse
There’s an old legend that if you skip the protein shake right after lifting, you might as well not work out at all. Your muscles desperately need protein immediately after a lift (the story goes) or they’ll literally shrink.
The post-workout shake — fake food designed to give you the protein you need right after a lift — is more or less the foundation of the supplement industry. It’s also a perfect example of how confusing nutrient timing can be for lifting. Is it better to eat something that’s not exactly food right away, or hold off for a bit? And when should you eat during the rest of the day?
Though most lifters (and coaches) agree about the importance of post-workout shakes and meals after lifting, timing food over the rest of the day is a little more complicated. Whereas lifters once stuck to the time-honored bodybuilding meal-timing protocol (grazing on six small ones a day, each with some protein), many have switched over to intermittent fasting, skipping food for more than a day at a time.
Surprisingly, the results wrought out of each diet don’t seem that different. It’s not as if lifters who intermittently fast are the only ones winning competitions — or losing them. Diets and meal timing make up just one factor contributing to a lifter’s success. And because the when of eating seems to have such hazy results, it’s worth asking how much of a difference nutrient timing actually makes and whether it does so at all.
What science says about weight lifting and meal timing
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The conclusions coming out of scientific studies covering nutrient timing are mixed.
- A 2006 study found some benefits from a protein shake with carbs taken before and after a workout.
- A 2014 paper published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition notes that straying from the traditional bodybuilding plan of six small meals a day, “appears to have little effect on fat loss or muscle retention,” and that keto diets — no carbs — might only work because of a calorie deficit.
- One study, from 2013, found that protein, taken after a workout, didn’t appear to affect strength or muscle size; another, published in Nutrients.
- A 2020 study looking at pre-, intra- and post-workout nutrition, arrives at the inverse: athletes see no disadvantage from clustering food around a workout.
The studies concede an advantage to getting some protein around a workout and are vague about the extent to which other changes …….