Meal Timing and Frequency: When and What To Eat For Female Fat Loss

Hands-down, this is one the most frequently asked questions from readers here at Fat Loss Foodies:

How often should I eat, especially if I'm managing a full-time job and workouts?

There are so many mixed messages about female fat loss out here on the interweb: eat, don't eat, eat this, don't eat that etc. etc. Many women struggle with knowing whether they should eat between meals and if so, what should those meals look like? Others want to know about training after work. Should they eat before?  If you work out late and then get home at 9 p.m., does that mean it's too late to eat dinner? Should they just have a protein shake?

I've heard it all, and here's the answer: 

There is no one answer.

Ask 10 different fitness pros what they recommend for meal type and frequency, and you will get 10 different answers. Some practice intermittent fasting, where they only eat during a set feeding window and fast for long periods of time (15+ hours). On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who believe in eating small meals every 3 or so hours. In the middle, there are people who believe we should just eat three main meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I've done all of these approaches and everything in between, and all I can do is tell you what works for me - and I will. However, like almost everything when it comes to your training and nutrition, the answer depends on you. What makes one woman lean can absolutely make another woman gain fat, because every metabolism is unique. I'm also not a big fan of doing things you hate, so if you hate prepping all your meals for the week - then I don't believe you should do something that makes you miserable just to get leaner. There are other ways to skin this cat. 

Here at Fat Loss Foodies, we err on the side of eating more, more often, and focus on the quality of food we eat and actually enjoying it. This flies in the face of everything you've been told by mainstream diet and weight loss programs. Many of the women we work with are fellow fitness professionals (personal trainers, group exercise instructors) who are training and teaching others in addition to doing their own workouts. They are athletes, and we teach them to eat like it. 

"Since all fat loss seekers are active, or at least should be, eating more frequently is probably a better approach from this regard as well." (Source)

NOTICE: WORK AHEAD

No matter what approach you take, there will be effort required and it will take time to settle in and master a new habit. Then, you have to keep doing it and be consistent. (Any time I change up my nutrition, it takes me a good 2-3 weeks to get into the new groove.) 

The answer to "how do I get more protein?" will always be this: you have to cook or buy more protein and then eat it." Any way you slice it, that takes some work. There is no Protein Fairy coming to magically put more protein in your fridge or on your plate. You have to do that. :) 

Getting leaner takes hard work, focus, and consistency over a long period of time. This is not a 3- or 4-week game. 

WHAT WORKS FOR ME

When I worked a 9-5 job, I did almost all my workouts in the evening at 5:30 or 6:30 pm. Before I knew better, I would either a.) Not eat because I didn't prepare and thought that by not eating I was saving calories or b.) Eat something that made no sense, like two slices of whole grain bread with peanut butter and banana and a glass of skim milk. I was not running a half-marathon, I was just taking a group fitness class like BODYPUMP, so pounding 70+ grams of carbs pre-workout was far more calories (esp carbs) than I actually needed. 

Fast forward 6-7 years and here's what I do now:

I eat a high-protein, high-fiber meal with healthy fats about every 3 hours, and I stack my starchy carbs around my workouts. It took me a few years to figure this out, but I actually do better with a high-protein, higher-fat breakfast with very low carbs. Now, occasionally I'll do protein pancakes or protein-oats, but I function better on a big omelet with green veggies and pesto or avocado. Then, I do a little carbs before my workout for energy so I can push hard and train intensely, and even more carbs post-workout when they are going towards muscle repair and building, as well as replenishing glycogen stores. 

My favorite pre-workout that makes me feel like I can CRUSH my workout, that also tastes really good:

  • About 80-100 grams of ground turkey, baked chicken breast, or another lean protein;
  • Approx. 50 grams of boiled sweet potato topped with a tablespoon of unsweetened almond butter, sea salt and sometimes cinnamon;
  • A handful of any non-starchy vegetable: roasted brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower puree, etc. I roast almost all my vegetables simply with olive oil, sea salt, and fresh black pepper. 

This clocks in a little under/around 300 calories and it's REAL food, so it's going to do a helluva lot more for your performance than some crusty protein bar. (Don't believe me? Try it and see.) 

Then, after my workout, I have a shake with 25-30 grams of whey protein, unsweetened almond milk, and 1 cup of frozen berries or cherries. Then, I eat again about an hour to 90 minutes later. My post-workout meal is the the same as my pre-workout meal (lean protein, healthy fats, non-starchy vegetables, and clean carbs - but about twice as many carbs as I had pre-workout.) 

Again, this is not an exact prescription so you can do what I do or eat what I eat. It is merely one approach and I've seen it work for myself and many of my clients. These are some of the benefits I've experienced from eating small, quality meals every 3-4 hours.

BENEFITS TO EATING FREQUENTLY

  • Increased performance. For many women, training on an empty stomach means never hitting the  intensity needed to burn fat. I see it on the faces of women in my group fitness classes all the time; I can *see* them hitting the wall. One exception would be a fasted HIIT cardio workout - but those are best done for only 20-or so minutes. In my opinion, that's a more advanced protocol and many experts disagree on whether or not it actually works. Regardless, it's not something I generally give to my beginning fat loss-seekers. It's simple though: if you feel good training fasted, go for it. If you don't, eat. 
  • Eliminates the "continuous meal." If you go straight from work to the gym and do not eat, you're setting yourself up for trouble when you get home. Many female clients tell me they feel ravenous in that post-workout/pre-dinner window, and find themselves consuming hundreds of calories of things like crackers, chips, wine, pretzels, etc. - anything fast they can eat while they fix dinner. Sure, by not eating pre-workout they saved a couple hundred calories, but they consumed so many when they came home that it cancels that out - and then some. 
  • Eliminates snacking. There is no secret fat loss snack that lean women are eating and not telling you about. This is "THE SECRET": Eat real food, mostly protein and vegetables and healthy fats, and add some starchy carbs in the amount and type that work for you. Yes, you probably have to cook that. Yes, it take time. I usually make some extra meals for the week on the weekend (I do NOT prep every single meal for the week) and then always cook extra food at dinner time. There is no low-fat yogurt, granola bar, or 100-calorie snack pack that can hold a candle to fueling your body with real food like turkey, fish, chicken, or steak with some green vegetables and good clean carbs like brown rice, sweet potatoes, potatoes, butternut squash, etc. If you want snack ideas, go pick up any mainstream women's fitness magazine. They specialize in those kinds of articles. I don't;) I even hate the word "snack" because I think it gives women the impression they should be eating adorable, child-like portions of "chick on a diet" food. If you really think baby carrots and 2 Tbs. of hummus or a Luna Bar is working for you, you're welcome to keep doing it. 
  • Balances HEC (Hunger, Energy, and Cravings.) Lean people eat, and they eat a lot. We eat for volume by focusing on foods that are high in protein, high in fiber, but still relatively low in calories. Under-eating imbalances hormones further and slows the metabolism, making fat loss even harder. You become MORE hungry, have MORE cravings, and you barely have the energy for daily activities, let alone intense workouts.  Eat more of the right things more often to balance blood sugar and keep cravings in check FIRST. As you become more experienced at eating for fat loss, you may find you can get away with going longer between meals because you've gotten off the crazy train of hormonal imbalance. 
  • Decreases reliance on willpower. If you're eating regularly, you never get to the point of ravenous hunger. When you've allowed your hunger levels to reach threat level: hangry, it's highly unlikely you'll take the time to make a nice salad or omelet with veggies. Instead, you go for fast, highly-palatable (read: salty, sugary, fatty, high starch) foods and eat a lot of quickly to feed the beast. If you never let yourself get to this point, it's much easier to make the right choices with food and eat them in reasonable amounts. 
  • Better sleep and recovery. Even if you're training at night, you still need adequate post-workout nutrition. Screw that old rule about not eating after 7 p.m. Seriously - just stop that already. (I'm pretty sure it's leftover, reheated advice from one of Oprah's diets back in the 90s.) Quality animal proteins like white fish, chicken and turkey, and clean carbs like brown rice will help increase levels of serotonin, a calming, feel-good hormone that will help improve sleep. (Source.)

There is no right or wrong way to approach your meals and there's no perfect number of meals to eat each day. I generally do 5 meals + a post-workout shake, and it helps me hit my daily macronutrient requirements (grams of protein, carbs, and fat) and maintain and build lean muscle. It's really hard to hit 100+ grams of protein per day if you're just eating 3 meals! 

If eating smaller meals more frequently appeals to you, spend a little time on the weekends doing your food shopping and make a simple game plan for the week. I only cook for my husband and me, but you'd think I'm feeding a family of 5-6. I *always* make extra of everything so we can have it for lunches and mini-meals the next day or two. I've tried the "Food Prep Sunday" routine where you make a week's worth of meals and put them in containers and it just doesn't jive with my foodie way of life. I like variety and find that boxing myself in to the same foods and flavors for a week straight sends me flying into rebellion. 

So - what do you think? Does that sound doable to you? I bet you could easily make 4-5 extra mini meals each week to eat before you workout. Try it and let me know how you do! 

Did you find this article helpful? Leave me a comment below or shoot me an email and let me know: LeslieAnn (at) FatLossFoodies.com. We love hearing from you AND it helps us create more content for this site that you can actually use! :)   

READ MORE on this topic:

Ten Nutrition Tips for When You Have To Train in the Evening - Poliquin Group

The Case for Eating Carbohydrates at Night - Strength Sensei 

Five Reasons to Eat Carbs at Night - Poliquin Group 

Eating Frequency: Not as Simple as it Seems - Metabolic Effect