If you’re trying to taking your performance and aesthetics to the next level…
Nutrient timing matters.
Before we get into exactly why it matters and exactly how you can implement it for yourself, let’s first clarify what “nutrient timing” actually is.
The concept of nutrient timing actually consists of two components:
- Meal timing
- Macronutrient timing
Meal timing encompasses how many meals you eat per day, as well as the time of day at which you eat them.
Macro timing refers to the timing of specific macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) intentionally at certain times throughout the day.
“I thought calories in vs. calories out was all that matters…”
Yes, I completely agree that you must prioritize total daily calorie and macronutrient intake before you so much as bat an eye at nutrient timing. I would also highly recommend that you’re ensuring that you’re getting enough micronutrients via high-quality foods before you explore nutrient timing.
However, I know that you’re looking to be the best you can be; and to fully optimize your nutrition plan (especially if you’re a competitive athlete) nutrient timing needs to be taken into consideration.
The combination of meal timing along with the timing of specific macros at specific times will enable you to optimize a number of variables that promote muscle gain, fat loss, and increased performance in the gym or on the field/court. These variables include (in no particular order):
-Muscle protein synthesis (MPS)
If one of these terms doesn’t ring a bell, sit tight. We’ll go much more in-depth into each of these variables as I take you step by step through how you can implement these tactics for yourself, just like I do with my online coaching clients.
Now, let’s get into the three-step process of how you’re going to be able to utilize nutrient timing to maximize your results…
Step 1: Determine the number of meals you’ll eat during the day.
Ahhhh… the age old question:
“How many times should I eat during the day?”
Short answer: It depends.
If you listen to the calories in vs. calories out (CICO) zealots, they’ll tell you that it doesn’t matter at all and you can eat as often or as infrequent as you’d like. While there is some truth to that, it doesn’t tell us the whole story.
The CICO perspective 100% holds true in the lens of solely weight gain and loss. What it doesn’t take into consideration is the type of weight gained/lost.
While on the surface you may want to gain or lose “weight,” if we look a little deeper we’ll likely find that you want to gain muscle and lose fat. The number of meals you have throughout the day can have somewhat of an influence on this.
How, you might ask?
Enter, muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
MPS is one of the key indicators of muscle growth. It’s stimulated by the ingestion of protein, specifically the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) in protein (leucine, in particular). While meal frequency doesn’t affect total weight gain/loss, it can play a role in optimizing MPS, therefore optimizing muscle growth.
Now let me just say that the statement that meal frequency affects MPS comes with the assumption that you’re consuming some sort of protein source with each meal (more on this later), as you should be.
And research has indicated that the optimal frequency of protein consumption to stimulate MPS seems to be 3-5 servings of protein throughout the day.
Because of that, I usually recommend that my clients eat 3-5 times per day assuming all things normal.
It’s important to understand that muscle protein synthesis isn’t the only thing to take into consideration when determining your meal frequency. Digestion and nutrient absorption is also extremely important to look at.
Simply put, it doesn’t matter how many calories you eat if your body can’t absorb and use them effectively!
When it comes to this side of things, a good measure of how it’s working for you is simply how you feel.
If you feel full and bloated when you eat 3 larger meals per day, try eating 4 or 5 smaller ones. The same is true if your digestion feels off if you are eating several small meals throughout the day.
This topic leads us nicely into the next step…
Step 2: When do I eat my meals?
Again, the CICO crowd will have you believe that it doesn’t matter when you eat as long as the calories are equated for.
Ohhh how I love when people brag about eating Oreos and ice cream right before bed…
Step 2 is actually going to be broken down into 2A and 2B.
Step 2A is determining your eating window for the entire day. While many people ride the Intermittent Fasting bandwagon wayyyy too hard, I do believe everyone should “fast” for ~10-12 hours a day.
Before you freak out, 10-12 hours is not long at all. To do this, simply stop eating ~2 hours before bed and wait to have breakfast for an hour or so after waking up. Nothing crazy here.
Now, why am I suggesting that you stop eating ~2 hours before bed?
See when you’re getting ready for bed, your body temperature naturally declines as you descend into sleep.
However, when you eat a meal your body temperature rises!
So you’re essentially going against your body’s natural signals and making it more difficult for you to get to sleep and achieve high quality sleep.
I understand that implementing this right off the bat may be quite the change from your normal habits, so don’t worry! If you enjoy eating closer to bed time and it makes it easier for you to hit your total daily intake, then try to have that last bite within 30-60min of going to bed. As always, pay attention to how it works for you. If you notice your sleep is suffering, this may be a place for you to look!
And like I mentioned, for breakfast simply wait 30-60 minutes after waking up if possible! Especially if you’re drinking water upon waking to rehydrate; you don’t want to chug a liter and then eat a full meal. That’s digestive issues waiting to happen, lol.
And as for how much time you should keep between meals, I typically recommend every 3-4 hours. I find personally that when I eat every 2 hours I feel like I’m constantly eating. Not only does this make my gut feel off, but it takes away from my productivity throughout the day! Again, this is going to take some trial and error on your part to figure out what works best for you.
If you are training on a given day, pre/post-workout meal timing is relatively important as well. Typically, a good baseline for when to eat pre workout is 90 minutes prior to training (more on the composition of this meal later). If you find yourself feeling full/bloated going into the session, either push back the meal another 30min or decrease the amount of calories in the meal.
Post-workout, aim to get a meal in within 1-2 hours of training. While the “anabolic window” in which you must eat 15 minutes after your last rep is simply a myth, it is important to get a solid meal in relatively soon after your session (especially if you are an athlete training multiple times per day!).
If you’re looking to maximize muscle gain and performance, you may want to consume a protein/carb drink immediately post workout.
Alright! That essentially covers when you should eat. Now let’s get into what those meals should consist of…
Step 3: Macronutrient Timing
As mentioned previously, macronutrient timing is the timing of specific macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) intentionally at certain times throughout the day.
Now that you now when you’re eating, we can construct those meals accordingly.
First order of business is to determine the amount of calories you need per meal. A good starting point for this is to simply take your total daily intake and divide it by the number of meals you’re eating daily (ex: 2000cals/4meals = 500cals per meal).
Like I said, this is a starting point, as you go, you’ll be able to fine tune things yourself (or with the help of a coach) and see what really works best for you.
For example, you may enjoy a larger breakfast; so you’ll simply go ahead and allow more calories for breakfast and take away from another meal.
Got it? Good.
Now let’s move on to protein. It’s a very similar approach to calories, actually. Take your total daily protein goal and divide it by the number of meals you’re eating daily. (ex: 200g/4 meals = 50g per meal).
Typically, you want to eat a minimum of 30-40g of protein per meal to maximize muscle protein synthesis. While 40g seems to be the max for stimulating MPS, going over this amount will NOT detriment your gains!!! Your body will absorb it. Don’t worry about all the supplement company marketing BS you’ve heard :)
You should be having protein with every single meal. Rarely is there ever a case where you should not be eating protein with a given meal.
Now that we’ve got protein down, it’s time to tackle carbs and fat. This is where it gets interesting…
We can manipulate your amount of carbs and fats in each meals throughout the day to maximize workout performance, muscle gain, fat loss, energy levels, and more.
In order to maximize insulin sensitivity, it can be very beneficial to time the majority of your carbs around your training session.
Just so we’re on the same page, insulin sensitivity refers to your body’s ability to effectively shuttle nutrients from your blood into your cells. Insulin is the chief anabolic hormone that makes the magic happen. Carbohydrates elicit a relatively high insulin response from your body. When you are constantly promoting the release of insulin into your bloodstream by taking in very high amounts of carbohydrates throughout the whole day for months and years on end, your body will become resistant to insulin. This means that it will take more and more insulin to achieve the same result, until your body simply can’t keep up.
Training helps to boost your insulin sensitivity, so timing your carbohydrates around your workouts is beneficial in ensuring that your body is able to effectively use them as fuel and for recovery.
Of course, if you are eating a very high amount of carbs (350+ grams per day), you may have a difficult time doing this. If that’s the case, insulin sensitivity probably isn’t numero uno on your priorities list. If you’re in the high-carb camp, you’ll want to make sure you’re prioritizing nutritional periodization (that’s a topic for another blog ;) ).
But, assuming all things normal, carb timing around your workouts will be very beneficial to your progress in the gym and in the mirror. As a general rule of thumb consume 50-75g of carbs in your pre-workout meal. In your immediate post-workout meal consume a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of carbs:protein. For example, if you consume 40g of protein, you’d consume 80-120g of carbs.
It’s important to note that the carb source in the post-workout meal should be predominantly a more “starchy” carb source like rice, potatoes, etc rather than fruit! The reasoning behind this is that the carbs from starches are going to be stored as muscle glycogen, whereas many of the carbohydrates from fruit are going to be stored as liver glycogen. Of course, you can still include fruit in your post-workout shake! Just make sure you’re not relying on it as your sole source of post-workout carbs.
As for fat, it’s essentially the opposite. You’re going to want to eat the majority of your fat intake outside of the immediate pre- and post-workout window. This is because the ingestion of fat slows down the digestion of other nutrients and slows down how quickly food leaves your stomach.
As you can imagine, having food sloshing around in your stomach during your training session is not going to be beneficial for your performance; not to mention, it won’t feel too great either.
After your training session, you don’t want fat slowing down nutrient absorption. You want the protein and carbs that you consume to be utilized as quickly and efficiently as possible. A good rule of thumb is to minimize added fat intake within 2 hours pre-workout and keep fat intake to ~15-20g post workout.
Here’s how this would look in a daily meal schedule. I’m going to include a “training day” (both AM and PM workouts) option and a “rest day” option:
TRAINING DAY (PM SESSION):
Breakfast – 8:00AM – 30-40g P, low carb, higher fat intake
Lunch (pre-workout) – 12:30PM – 30-40g P, ~50-75g C, no added fat (don’t worry about fat from the protein source)
WORKOUT – 2:30PM
Post-workout meal/shake – 4:00PM – 30-40g P, 3:1 ratio of C:P, ~15-20g F
Dinner – 6:00PM – 30-40g P, rest or daily carb and fat intake
TRAINING DAY (AM SESSION):
Pre-workout – 6:00AM – possible a protein/carb drink or a piece of fruit; don’t worry too much about having to eat in this time period.
WORKOUT – 7:00AM
Breakfast – 8:30AM – 30-40g P, 3:1 ratio of C:P, ~15-20g F30-40g P, low carb, higher fat intake
Lunch – 12:30PM – 30-40g P, balanced carb and fat intake
Afternoon meal – 4:00PM – 30-40g P, balanced carb and fat intake
Dinner – 6:00PM – 30-40g P, rest or daily carb and fat intake (likely lower carb and higher fat)
Nothing special here. Simply take your totals and divide them by the number of meals that you’re consuming. If you’d like, you can leave your carbs for later in the day (follow a similar schedule to the PM training day) if you’re trying to work on your insulin sensitivity. No need to overcomplicate things though.
Lot’s of info, I know.
I’ll leave you with this. Meal timing and nutrient timing doesn’t need to be that complicated. Simply eat a decent amount of protein at each meal and time the majority of your carbs around your workouts.
If you do that, you’ll be in good shape when it comes to this stuff.
And as always, what works best for you is individual to YOU. It’s going to take some trial and error for you to find what works best for you.
Oh, and one more thing.
Please DO NOT get married to a style of meal timing. Your goals are going to change. Your preferences are going to change. Your schedule is going to change.
Your nutrition plan should change to reflect that.
This is the fundamental principle of nutritional periodization.
Which may or may not be the topic of the next blog ;) (cliff hanger, anyone?).
As always, if you have any questions about any of the information I covered in this article ALWAYS feel free to shoot me a message and ask away! I’m here to help you achieve the results you’ve been after for so long.
Thanks again for reading! Be on the lookout for a NEW blog article every Wednesday from here on out.