Nutrient timing is the planned influence and alteration of macronutrient intake in order to promote health, improve workout performance, and get or stay lean. At the core, nutrient timing strategies are principally based on how our body handles different foods at different times.
The practice of nutrient timing has several important goals. They key ones are:
- Nutrient partitioning (where the nutrients go when we ingest them)
- Improved body composition
- Enhanced workout recovery
Why nutrient timing is potentially important?
Our bodies are primed for fat loss and muscle gain at specific times of the day, and this is especially true during times of exercise.
The wrong foods at the wrong times can certainly hamper our efforts in the gym, just as the right foods at the right times can enhance those efforts.
Achieving the appropriate energy balance remains the most important factor to fat loss and muscle gain. But once we account for energy balance, timing nutrient intake can can help to up-regulate our metabolism, shift our hormonal profile and influence overall body composition.
One of the primary reasons someone might look to manipulate nutrient intake is to take advantage the anabolic hormone insulin.
Insulin does a lot of things, but in the context of nutrient timing it is the hormone that is principally responsible for regulating nutrient entry into muscle cells. Without elevated insulin, the muscle growth related benefits won’t occur. This is just one of the many reasons that low-carb diets are sub-optimal for building muscle. So when you plan a higher carbohydrate intake at times when your body is better equipped to handle it (i.e. around workouts), we can leverage the benefits of insulin for improved bodily function.
A quick note on carbohydrates:
Our body handles various types of carbohydrates differently. Generally speaking, carbohydrates that are digested and absorbed slowly can help to control the insulin response. These are carbohydrates that are higher in fibre and lower in simple sugars, such as beans, legumes and a lot of different vegetables.
By contrast, a diet consisting of refined carbohydrates and added sugars (which enter the body rapidly), can elevate blood triglyceride levels and bad cholesterol, and ultimately lead to insulin resistance.
As such, the raw materials with which we fuel our body through the consumption of food and supplements strongly influences the metabolic environment we desire to achieve.
Said more simply, food quality and food composition matters.
What you need to know
- Regardless of your goals and activity, protein and fat intake will stay fairly constant. The macronutrient most commonly manipulated through nutrient timing is carbohydrate.
- The body can better handle carbohydrates during and after physical activity
- Carbohydrates are also handled better with high levels of fitness and lower levels of body fat (~15% or less for men and ~20% or less for women).
By extension, the intake of higher carbohydrates will generally correlate with:
- periods of moderate to intense physical activity (e.g. resistance training, sprinting)
- frequent physical activity (daily workouts, physically active profession, walking and hiking)
- a high level of physical fitness
- a lower level of body fat
Lower-carb scenarios will include some combination of:
- sedentary or inactive periods
- lower overall levels of physical fitness
- higher levels of body fat (greater than ~15% for men and ~20% for women)
That said, regardless of your body fat and overall fitness level, consuming carbohydrate during the post-workout period enables us to replace muscle glycogen and improve recovery.
What carbs and when?
Dense carbohydrate foods (e.g. potatoes, yams, oats, quinoa, sprouted grain breads and pastas, etc.) are best consumed during and after exercise. And remember, carbohydrates have a protein-sparing effect, so we require less dietary protein when carb intake is higher. This is why protein demands are lower during a muscle building phase and higher when we transition into fat loss.
The when of carb timing is not an exact prescription, largely because there are a great many variables that will influence how our bodies handle carbohydrates.
Some of these include:
- Your fasted state
- Overall body composition
- The intensity and duration of the exercise
- Medications you are taking and any underlying health conditions
- The time of day
- The foods you consume and food pairings
- Stress levels and sleep quality
With so many variables in play, it’s hard to say exactly how long carb tolerance remains elevated after periods of exercise. For most of you, it’s safe to assume that carb tolerance is best for approximately three hours after exercise. And of course, the sooner we can eat post-exercise the more likely we can better handle and partition the carbs.
So what are we doing for carb timing throughout the rest of the day?
Well if we assume the average person gets (at least tries to get) eight hours of sleep per night, when we factor in this three-hour post-workout window, we’re left with about thirteen hours where carb sensitivity is sub-optimal.
During this time, how you approach carbohydrates will be heavily influenced by your fitness, body composition and goals.
- If you are lean and maintaining/holding your current body composition, you’ll likely do fine with some dense carb foods making-up a proportion (~25%) of every meal.
- If you have fat to lose, you’ll want to focus more on proteins and fats and reduce, minimize or eliminate dense carb foods from your other, non post-workout meals.
Wrapping things up
- Nutrient timing is an important strategy, but it’s not appropriate or necessary for everyone.
- If you’re new to healthy eating, start by simply improving the overall quality of your food. Once you have built a foundation of wholesome, nutritious eating, you can consider adding nutrient timing to your daily practice.
- If you are already lean and looking to maintain your current body composition, you are generally fine consuming more carbohydrates with meals throughout the day.
- If you are looking to lose body fat and have your energy balance in check, aim to consume the majority of your dense carbs during and after periods of exercise. When outside of the post-workout window, focus on proteins and fats, and consume fewer dense carbs with meals (depending on body composition).
- If you want to build muscle, the nutrient timing principles are similar to those when looking to lose fat. i.e. get your energy balance in check (energy surplus), time the majority of dense carbs around the post-workout window, and simply add more calories overall. And remember, carbs are protein sparing, so less protein is necessary when building muscle.
If you need help with diet and nutrition to support your physique goals, I’ve got you covered. Simply reach out here in the comments, get in touch on Facebook or Instagram, or use my contact form to start a conversation. What you have got to lose?