Science of Nutrient Timing for Fat Loss Muscle Gain Strength

Science of Nutrient Timing for Fat Loss, Muscle Gain & Strength

This is the fifth in the series of six articles. It is intended to help people arrive at informed decisions about their nutrition program for muscle gain and fat loss so that they can make the right decisions and also avoid mistakes when implementing a fitness training program. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice or medical treatment.

Nutrient Timing

Proper timing of nutrition does help in optimizing the results and it does have favorable effects on body composition. However, nutrient timing is the fifth layer of the nutrition pyramid and it can only help if the three foundation levels of your nutrition plan (the calorie intake, the macronutrients composition and the micronutrients consideration) are strong.

When we eat the right nutrients at the right times of the day, the result is improved performance, fat loss and muscle gain.

Proper nutrient timing takes into account two dimensions that directly correlate to performance:

  • Nutrient intake in correct proportions
  • Timing between nutrient intake and exercise

Topics Covered Related to Nutrient Timing:

  • How many meals to eat in a day
  • At what times during the day to eat
  • When to eat relative to when you exercise
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Calorie cycling
  • Cheat days
  • Macro cycling
  • Example Calculations

How Many Meals to Eat in a Day




Research has shown that protein intake spread evenly between 4-5 meals in a day (0.4 to 0.6g protein per kg of Bodyweight per meal) may lead to more favorable muscle growth when it comes to bulking.

It helps to keep it simple and eat the minimum number of meals that we can without compromising our goals unless your personal preference is for a higher number. By eating fewer meals we simplify macro counting and food preparation. This helps in adherence, which is the key to success over the long-term.


There are several views on how many meals one should eat per day. It is very common to find suggestions like “How to Lose Weight by Eating Two Meals a Day”, “Is there a biological reason to eat three meals a day?”, “The importance of 5 meals per day” and etc.


Eating one meal a day sounds like the simplest choice, but it is not going to be optimal for lean mass retention when dieting, nor muscle growth when bulking.

Further, eating one meal a day is unlikely to give you the calories and nutrients your body needs to thrive. Your stomach is of a limited size and it will be very hard to get in the appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables to meet your daily micronutrients and fiber needs, while still getting in enough calories for the day.

However, eating one meal a day is a practice that many people swear by to lose weight and improve overall health. The one-meal-per-day diet is also referred to as OMAD. Some excessively obese individuals find eating one meal a day as the easiest way to lose weight and curb their cravings, and they do this because the health risks of carrying so much body fat outweigh the risks of short- term micronutrient deficiencies. It is not an optimal long- term strategy.

Some evidence suggests that restricting too much — which can include only consuming one meal a day — may do more harm than good. Extreme restriction may lead to increased total and LDL “bad” cholesterol and higher blood pressure levels, may increase fasting blood sugar levels, delay the body’s response to insulin, and increase levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, and it can also lead to extreme hunger.

Even if you think you can do this, don’t do this.


Regarding eating 6+ meals a day, UCLA Health, an academic medical center, which comprises of a number of hospitals and an extensive primary care network in the Los Angeles region in US did some research and published an article “Ask the Doctors – Are 6 small meals a day better than 3 big ones?” In this article it says that “Participants in a study who ate six small meals showed no metabolic advantage over those who ate three large meals.”

Athletes who train multiple times a day have very high energy demands and may find their performance impaired when training on a full stomach. The higher frequency of meals helps them with faster glycogen replenishment between workouts. This is of concern only to athletes. Therefore, their case is special and it may be justified.

Do not try to copy athletes — a research found that “switching from three daily meals to six did not boost calorie-burning or fat loss. In fact, the researchers concluded, eating six meals a day actually made people want to eat more.” As per a study published in the journal Obesity, having six meals in a day does not help you to control your hunger better as compared to eating three meals a day.


Cutting means eating less and trying to shed body fat to end up lean whilst maintaining muscle mass. For those cutting, it helps to have fewer meals.  You can eat more at each meal. If you skip breakfast, you can go for larger lunches and dinners.

Many clients skip breakfast when in a cutting phase and many choose to skip it when in bulking phase. However, if one does train fasted in the morning then it is best to take a whey protein shake to minimize the risk of muscle breakdown.

Bulking is the muscle-gaining phase. You’re meant to intentionally consume more calories than your body needs. These extra calories provide your body with the necessary fuel to boost muscle size and strength while training.

For those bulking, it may not be comfortable or practical to eat just two meals a day because of the quantity of food that one needs to be eat. In this case, splitting meals into three or four meals is a great option, or having liquid meals/snacks. Though there are likely no benefits to eating more than four meals a day, it is perfectly fine to do so during bulking if one so prefers.

Is eating more than twice a day more beneficial for muscle growth? No differences have been noticed in client groups on average, between those who continued to skip breakfast and those who didn’t. Though those looking to bulk may benefit from a higher meal frequency. No differences have been noticed in the outcomes between clients who preferred to eat two meals vs. those who ate three or four.

A Physique / Figure professional may opt for more meals in a day to maximize any potential benefits. Recreational trainees need not complicate things this much.

My personal choice, regardless of whether I’m cutting or bulking, is to eat two meals and have a morning shake before training. I like simplicity and I don’t think the additional meal is worth the trade-off. However, you should do as you find best for you.


No differences were observed by me in the outcome of clients who ate 2–4 meals. However, 80% of them (1000+ clients over 9 years), were cutting.

At What Times During the Day to Eat

As long as you don’t eat all your meals in a period of a few hours and that your spread your meals evenly across the day, nutrient timing is not critical. For meal timing if one follows two fairly simple rules then it should be perfectly fine.


It is OK to work out while fasting because the key to weight loss and muscle gain is not just calories and exercise, but also hormone optimization. Studies demonstrate amazing benefits of combining fasting with training that takes the benefits of each to a whole new level. However, make sure that when your body seeks amino acids (the building blocks of protein) then it takes them from your bloodstream rather than breaking your muscle down to get them. Hence, take a whey shake 30–60 minutes before you start.

Whey protein is better than EAA or BCAA supplementation. It is fast-digesting at a rate of 8–10 g per hour, therefore, if your first meal of the day is more than 3 hours after your first scoop was taken, take a second scoop.

When you exercise on an empty stomach, you may burn valuable energy sources and have less stamina. Low blood sugar levels may also leave you feeling lightheaded, nauseous, or shaky. Another possibility is that your body will adjust to continually using fat reserves for energy, and start to store more fat than usual. If you find yourself struggling to train with your normal intensity, then have 30–60 g of carbs with the shake by eating a banana or two (or anything you find easy to digest). Avoid fat as this may cause stomach upset.

This does help maintain training intensity toward the end of a cut when liver and muscle glycogen stores are low.


If your personal preference is two meals a day then it should be lunch and dinner and which should be 7 to 9 hours apart. However, if you select to eat three meals a day then they should be breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Eating a little less in one meal is fine. As for example, if you train during early afternoon then you may want to eat a light lunch to avoid feeling nauseous.

Spread your meals evenly across the day. Having all your meals in a period of few hours is not advised.


If the meals are evenly spaced during the day then there is not much to worry about protein or carbohydrate timing.

  • Taking protein shake immediately after workout is not critical because one will still have amino acids in blood-stream breaking down from the meal consumed earlier.
  • Taking carbs right before training is not critical because muscles will still have glycogen (a form of energy storage) from prior meals to fuel the training.
  • It’s not essential to have carbs immediately after you train. There is some research that consuming a proper amount of carbs and protein after exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis. But this is yet to be established.
  • Do not skew your fat, protein or carb intake during the day too heavily. There’s no advantage of doing this and it complicates things.

When to Eat Relative to When You Exercise

In the tables below are some detailed meal timing examples of when to eat relative to when you train.

Early Morning Fasted Training:

This setup is the most popular with clients. They all have full-time jobs and most have families, so they choose this because it allows them to train before the rest of the day takes its toll. The key isn’t waking up early. It’s going to bed consistently earlier so that you can wake up early while still being rested.

Early Morning Training:

Many people prefer early morning fasted workouts.

Skipping Breakfast Eating Breakfast
05:30 25 g whey (optional banana) 05:30 25 g whey
06:00 Training 06:00 Training
08:30 25 g whey 07:00 Breakfast
12:00 Lunch 12:00 Lunch
20:00 Dinner 20:00 Dinner

Mid Morning Training:

Popular with people who have to attend to some important tasks before hitting the gym.

Skipping Breakfast Eating Breakfast
08:30 25 g Whey 07:00 Light Breakfast
09:00 Training 09:00 Training
12:00 Lunch 12:00 Lunch
20:00 Dinner 20:00 Dinner

Lunch Time Training:

Popular with people who have gym closer to work.

Skipping Breakfast Eating Breakfast
11:30 25 g Whey 07:00 Breakfast
12:00 Training 12:00 Training
13:00 Lunch 13:00 Lunch
20:00 Dinner 20:00 Dinner

Early Afternoon Training:

Fewer people do this but it works.

Skipping Breakfast Eating Breakfast
07:00 Breakfast
12:00 Light lunch 12:00 Light lunch
14:00 Training 14:00 Training
~15:30 25 g Whey & banana ~15:30 25 g Whey & banana
20:00 Dinner 20:00 Dinner

Evening Training:

If this does not interfere with your work routine then this is ok.

Skipping Breakfast Eating Breakfast
07:00 Breakfast
12:00 Lunch 13:00 Lunch
~17:00 Training ~17:00 Training
20:00 Dinner 20:00 Dinner

Late Evening Training:

This timing is best avoided as it may impact the duration or quality of sleep. However, if this must be done then a slow-release protein shake like casein may be better than whey prior to bed.

Skipping Breakfast Eating Breakfast
07:00 Breakfast
12:00 Lunch 13:00 Lunch
19:00 Light dinner 19:00 Light dinner
~21:00 Training ~21:00 Training
22:00 50 g Protein & banana 22:00 50 g Protein & banana

Some people find that carbs make them sleepy. Breakfast eaters that feel lethargic mid-morning should consider eating fewer calories from carbs and more calories from fats at breakfast time and reversing this at dinner. Breakfast skippers should do this but with lunch. As an added bonus, this may help you sleep better in the evening.

A small percentage of clients find that a large meal before bed disturbs their sleep. If this causes you to sweat or just otherwise feel uncomfortable, eat an hour or two earlier or reduce the calorie content of your evening meal.

The idea that eating before bed makes you fat is a myth.


Intermittent fasting (IF) is an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating. Several people do it. There are different types of intermittent fasting.

Alternate-Day Fasting (ADF) is one intermittent fasting approach. The basic idea is that you fast on one day and then eat what you want the next day. It is the strictest form of intermittent fasting because there are more days of fasting per week. On one had it can cause rapid weight loss but on the other hand it encourages binge-starve behavior cycles hence it is not recommended.

Alternate Day Fasting - AbhiFit

5:2 Intermittent Fasting involves eating normally 5 days of the week while restricting your calorie intake to 500–600 for 2 days of the week. This diet is also called the Fast Diet and was popularized by British journalist Michael Mosley. On the fasting days, it’s recommended that women eat 500 calories and men 600. As you can see in the table below, this involves two ~24 hour periods per week with no food. Three consecutive meals are skipped, twice per week, but not on the same day. Therefore, one is always eating something on any given day. eat all their food within and 8-hour window.

As consistent meal times contribute to hunger regulation, therefore 5-2 I.F. also is not recommended.

5-2 Intermittent Fasting and Nutrient Timing - Top Personal Trainer Dubai UAE

16/8 Intermittent Fasting involves limiting consumption of foods and calorie-containing beverages to a set window of eight hours per day and abstaining from food for the remaining 16 hours. It involves skipping one meal, typically breakfast, mostly because this is the easiest to stick to as it has the least social consequences. It does help create the calorie deficit needed for fat loss by removing 1/3 of the meals people typically eat in a week.

16-8 Intermittent Fasting and Nutrient Timing - Top Personal Trainer Dubai UAE

One may have success with any of these methods of intermittent fasting for a while, but at some point counting calories becomes more important. This is because body’s compensatory mechanisms drive one to eat more without realizing it.


It’s a 16/8 approach: Followers fast for sixteen hours every day (inclusive of sleep) and eat during an eight-hour feeding window. As you can see in the image below people on this style of intermittent fasting eat all their food within and 8-hour window.

It was developed by Swedish nutritionist Martin Berkhan. It combines skipping breakfast with fluctuating calorie and macro intake — more calories and carbs are consumed on the training days; fewer calories and carbs are consumed on the rest days. Fat intake is lower on the training days, and more on the rest days.

LEANGAINS Fasting - Top Personal Trainer Dubai UAE

Martin popularized the 16:8 term by telling people to eat all their food within an 8-hour window. LEANGAINS preceded 16:8 Intermittent Fasting which can be considered a simplification, however, skipping breakfast is not something new.

Why an 8-hour window? Why not 7 or 9 hours?

This is to give people an easy-to-understand rule. If people are asked to skip breakfast and just eat two meals, then some people might put two meals too close together to be optimal.

Why did Martin choose to fluctuate calorie, carb, and fat intake?

Martin did this for more favorable calorie partitioning. More calories and carbs on the training days are utilized for growth and recovery with a low fat intake to minimize the risk of any storage. On the rest days, people do the opposite so that the balance for the week is maintained.

Does this make a difference?

It probably doesn’t. However, a pattern like this breaks the monotony of dieting and is easier to adhere to and hence people can do it if they want to.


  • People are likely to make less counting mistakes
  • Meal preparation is less time-consuming
  • People have experienced an increased focus in the mornings
  • Fewer meals mean larger meals for the same calorie and which is more satisfying
  • After an initial adjustment phase which is usually 5–7 days, there is lack of morning hunger


  • Risk of muscle loss is high when dieting. There is no clarity in scientific literature on this. Any significant muscle loss has not been noticed by me in clients, however, it’s something important to consider.
  • It’s less optimal when bulking. The scientific literature suggests that it is better to spread the meals further.
  • If one has a history of disordered eating then the person probably shouldn’t be doing any form of fasting.
  • Since it is more complicated, it is difficult to adhere to.


Calorie and macronutrient intake do not have to be the same every day. Calorie cycling is the name given to a diet plan when different days of the week have different calorie targets.

Why include them? Incorporating calorie cycling into a diet plan doesn’t have much support in the scientific literature for improving outcomes as compared to the other things discussed up until this point. However, it does provide a helpful break from the monotony of dieting by introducing some variety in possible food options across the week. Will this be beneficial beyond that? Probably not but these strategies do help improve adherence.


Most people plan their diets to follow following trend:

Most People Plan Their Daily Caloie Intake Like This - Top Personal Trainer Dubai UAE

But practically, it turns out to be like following:

Most People Practically Have Their Daily Caloie Intake Like This - Top Personal Trainer Dubai UAE


This is unintentional calorie cycling.

One who adheres to diet plan during the week but struggles at the weekends should consider building more flexibility into the plan by including cycling to allow that.

For example, to maintain the daily average calorie intake, one can eat 300 calories fewer on the weekdays so that 750 calories extra are available on two days of the weekend:

Calorie Intake with Weekend Flexibility - Top Personal Trainer Dubai UAE


If one can “borrow” 50 g of carbs and 10 g of fat from weekdays and “lend” 125 g of carbs and 25 g of fat to Saturday and Sunday each, then the weekly average is maintained.

The recommended pattern is to eat more on the days you train and less on those you don’t. Here’s what it looks like with a four-day training split:

Calorie Cycling with More Calories on Training Days - Top Personal Trainer Dubai UAE


Avoid calorie fluctuations much greater than 20% as it will make adherence harder and likely compromise results. It is recommended to keep rest day calorie intake at 20% lower than the training days.


One sticks to a strict diet for the whole week except for one day and on that day eats whatever heart desires. Burgers, pizza, ice cream, chocolate, soft drinks, and alcohol… eats anything on this one day. Cheat day is a day on which people eat whatever they want.

Cheat days have no place in a diet and I strongly suggest you avoid them. Cheat days are the most common pattern of people derailing their diets (or getting fat when they bulk). It amounts to staying on course during the weekdays and blowing it all on the weekend. It is perfectly possible to do this over one day, any day of the week, as well.

Take an example: if one is targeting 0.5 kg per week of fat loss then for this a 500 kcal deficit is planned for each day. This means that over the week in 5 days 2500 kcal deficit will accumulate. But if 2500 kcal extra is consumed over the weekend, all deficit has gone for a toss.

If one thinks that it is enough to be perfect 6 days a week and that they can’t overdo it by eating 3000 kcal on a weekly single “cheat” day then they are only deceiving themselves.

Cheat Days do not help in fat loss progress - Top Personal Trainer Dubai UAE


Flexibility into diet plan helps adherence, but “cheat” days do not.


Macro cycling involves having different macros targets on different days of the week. This is done to improve body composition, training effect, or performance.

An example of this is eating more carbs and less fat on the days you train; and more fat and fewer carbs on the days you don’t. It is recommended to avoid extreme splits in macro intake as that could also compromise recovery and hamper adherence.

I decide to keep the rest day fat intake 20% higher than the training day. As the carbs balance the daily calorie amount, this means the training days have more carbs than the rest days.


For deciding your macros (protein, fat and carbs) nutrient timing, you first need to calculate your TDEE and then calculate your macros. Our website provides a TDEE calculator that you can use for free here

GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS (You can read our Macronutrients article for more):

  • Protein
    • 2 gram per kg of body weight whether you are cutting or bulking
  • Fat
    • Cutting – 15 to 20% of Calories
    • Bulking – 20 to 30 % of Calories
    • Minimum – 0.5 gm. / kg
  • Carbs
    • Cutting – The rest
    • Bulking – The rest
    • Minimum – 1 gm. / kg

Macro calculation will also depend upon you choice of fat intake. You can select to take 20% or 30% of calories from fat as per your choice and balance calories from carbs.


  • Name: John
  • Male
  • Overweight
  • Goal: Cutting
  • Personal Preference: Does not want to cut fat intake, Flexible on weekends
  • Weight: 80 kg
  • TDEE: 2000 Calories

Protein (2.2 gm. / kg) = 2.2 x 80 = 176 gm. x 4 (Calorie / gm.) = 704 Calories

Fat (20% of TDEE) = 2000 x .20 = 400 Calories = 400 / 9 = 45 gm.

Carbs (Balance Calories) = 2000 – (704+400) = 896 / 4 (Calorie / gm.) = 214 gm.

Weekly Calories intake = 2000 x 7 = 14000 kcal

Personal Preference: John Doe decides to sacrifice weekday’s flexibility in favor of calorie buffer on the weekend.

John does not want to reduce fat intake, hence “borrows” 40 gm. of carbs from his weekdays. This gives him an additional 800 kcal (40 x 4 kcal x 5 days). John uses this 800 kcal across Saturday and Sunday, 400 kcal on each. He chooses to split the 400 kcal additional budget between fats and carbs evenly, so he adds 20 gm. of fat and 55 g of carbs to both Saturday and Sunday.


  • Protein: 176 gm.
  • Fat: 45 gm.
  • Carbs: 174 gm.
  • Calories = 176×4 + 45×9 + 174×4 = 1805


  • Protein: 176 gm.
  • Fat: 65 gm.
  • Carbs: 229 gm.
  • Calories = 176×4 + 65×9 + 229×4 = 2205

Weekly Calories intake with weekend flexibility = 1805 x 5 + 2205 x 2 = 13435 kcal


  • Name: Richard
  • Male
  • Underweight
  • Goal: Bulking
  • Personal Preference: Wants to keep macros unchanged
  • Weight: 78 kg
  • TDEE: 3000 Calories

Protein (2.2 gm. / kg) = 2.2 x 78 = 172 gm. x 4 (Calorie / gm.) = 688 Calories

Fat (20% of TDEE) = 3000 x .20 = 600 Calories = 600 / 9 = 67 gm.

Carbs (Balance Calories) = 3000 – (688+600) = 1712 / 4 (Calorie / gm.) = 428 gm.

If you like fat and select to take 30% of TDEE from fat then calculation will change.

Fat (30% of TDEE) = 3000 x .30 = 900 Calories = 900 / 9 = 100 gm.

Carbs (Balance Calories) = 3000 – (688+900) = 1412 / 4 (Calorie / gm.) = 353 gm.

Personal Preference: Richard is bulking. He doesn’t have to restrict his diet and his personal preference is to keep his macros unchanged.


  • Protein: 172 gm.
  • Fat: 67 gm.
  • Carbs: 428 gm.


  • Protein: 172 gm.
  • Fat: 67 gm.
  • Carbs: 428 gm.


  • Avoid any extremes
  • Eat 2–3 meals when cutting
  • Eat 3–4 meals when bulking
  • Sweet spot is 3 meals
  • Avoid training completely fasted
  • Spread meals well throughout the day
  • Spread macros well throughout the day
  • You may skip breakfast if you want to, however, there’s no significant benefit
  • You may use calorie cycling and macro cycling, however, there’re no significant benefits
  • If you’re a physique / figure competitor then a higher meal frequency may help if you can properly implement and adhere to it
  • If you’re a physique / figure competitor then calorie and macro cycling may help if you can properly implement and adhere to them

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Many female and male clients have greatly benefited from Abhinav. You can see some of his client transformations here.

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Best Personal Trainer, Nutritionist & Lifestyle Coach in Dubai, UAE Abhinav Malhotra, Team AbhiFit – Client Transformations 8 August 2022
Boosting Immunity through Diet and Exercise - Dubai UAE Best Personal Fitness Trainer Abhinav Malhotra

About Author

Abhinav Malhotra

Abhinav Malhotra is an award-winning personal trainer, coach and sports nutritionist in Dubai, UAE. He also offers online services to clients around the world. A personal trainer par excellence, Abhi has worked with the world’s leading fitness chains, supplement brands and founded his own fitness academy in India. He has achieved successes for many clients from all backgrounds and has trained the Indian Army Rugby Team. He is the first International Kettlebell Sport athlete from India.

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