If you have a specific wellness or fitness goal, whether it’s to build muscle, lose weight, or to prevent chronic disease, you probably put a good deal of thought into what you eat—and you’re wise to do so, according to Ryan D. Andrews, MS, MA, RD, RYT, CSCS.

In particular, eating enough vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts/seeds, cultured dairy, and seafood, while limiting added sugar, refined grains, salt, and meat, are some across-the-board recommendations from Andrews.  

In addition to specific food choices, the quantity of food you consume, sleep, physical activity, stress management, and social connections all add up to help you reach those goals. Another variable that’s been edging its way into the mainstream is chrononutrition, or when you eat what you eat. 

WHAT IS CHRONONUTRITION? 

“Chrononutrition explores the junction between circadian biology and nutrition,” says Andrews. And while it matters less than the aforementioned tenets of healthy living, when we do things does matter. 

“How we live and experience the world influences what happens in the body, and what happens in the body influences how we live and experience the world,” Andrews says. This may sound like a brain teaser but it essentially means that things like jetlag or working the night shift can influence how your body processes what you eat—and what you eat can influence how well you deal with things like jetlag and shift work. 

Beyond these more drastic changes to meal timing (like eating dinner on a plane when it’s 3 a.m. in your destination), when you eat meals and even certain macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) during the day may impact how your body metabolizes them. 

DOES MACRONUTRIENT TIMING MATTER?   

A recent study found that eating protein in the morning can help optimize muscle growth. And Andrews points to the two-hour “window” pre- and post-workout during which you can take advantage of consuming both protein and carbohydrate to assist in performance and recovery.  But, he notes, let’s not overemphasize the importance of macro, or even meal, timing. It’s kind of like taking a multivitamin and thinking it’ll make up for a poor diet, little sleep, and no exercise. Meal or macro timing without all the rest of the stuff that make up a healthy lifestyle isn’t going to do all that much for you. 

For most people who are physically active and who want to have a healthy body, Andrews’ advice when it comes to chrononutrition is:

  • Eat 3 to 4 well-considered meals, emphasizing minimally-processed plant foods, at similar times each day
    • Consume one of them 1 to 2 hours before exercise
    • Consume another within 1 to 2 hours after exercise
  • Allow 12 hours between dinner and breakfast

“An X factor that I cannot neglect to mention when speaking of nutrition would be preference,” Andrews says. “If someone prefers a spontaneous approach to eating each day, and this allows them to eat a healthier diet, then this is likely best for them.”   

THE BOTTOM LINE

If you do want to play around with meal and macro timing, Andrews recommends paying attention (maybe even journaling) when you are more/less hungry on a given day, how you feel after eating different meals and at different times (think: levels of satiety, energy, etc.), and so forth. “Starting to connect the dots between these behaviors and outcomes could offer useful guidance on how to best time your meals each day,” he says.