Meal or nutrient timing refers to eating nutrients (protein or carbs) in specific amount at specific times (before, during, or after exercise).
In terms of sports nutrition, different meals should be eaten at different times of the day:
- Post workout meals should be higher in carbs, especially faster-digesting starchy carbs (such as potatoes or rice) or sweeter carbs (such as fruit).
- All other meals should be lower in carbs, lean protein plus healthy fats and fibrous vegetables.
This placement of carbs could help people with their performance in the gym while getting leaner, stronger, and healthier. But for the average person who exercises occasionally or not at all and is trying to just look or feel better, nutrient timing is not as important as overall daily calorie intake.
Post-workout “anabolic window of opportunity”
Brian St Pierre at Precision Nutrition states that nutrient timing can play a key role in fitness as proven by various research studies which found something we call the post-workout “anabolic window of opportunity.”
Heavy resistance training sensitizes muscle tissues to carbohydrates. After a heavy weight training session, your muscle cells are scrambling to soak up carbs to promote recovery. That means the higher your daily workout volume, the better you’ll be sensitized to carbs. – St Pierre, Precision Nutrition
Weight training or sprint intervals make our body a nutrient-processing powerhouse. During this time our muscles need glucose, either oxidizing it as fuel or more readily storing it as glycogen (instead of fat). And post-workout protein consumption cranks up protein synthesis.
Recent studies indicate that the “anabolic window of opportunity” is actually a whole lot bigger than we used to believe, you probably have one or two hours on both sides of your training to get these benefits.
Nevertheless we ought to remember that we’re all unique. There’s no one-size-fits all rule. Just like when you exercise, what’s most important is that you make high-quality choices, consistently, whenever it works for you.
For years dietitians and nutritionists thought that the best approach to splitting up your daily food intake was to eat small meals frequently throughout the day. From early research it was assumed that eating often would speed up the metabolism, help control the hormones insulin and cortisol, and manage the appetite.
However, a recent review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, and other lines of evidence, suggest otherwise:
As long as we eat the right foods in the right amounts, meal frequency seems to be a matter of personal preference. You can eat lots of small meals each day (i.e. every few hours). Or you can eat a few big meals each day (i.e. with bigger time gaps between them). And there’s almost no physiological difference. – St Pierre, Precision Nutrition
However, there could be psychological differences, mind you. Which is why you should listen to your own body. If you’re covering all your other bases and your current meal frequency isn’t working, try switching it up. Experiment with fewer meals if you eat more frequently. And more meals if you eat less frequently. Because either approach is physiologically valid, you’re free to find the lifestyle approach that works best for you.
When nutrient timing still matters
Nutrient timing is a complex subject and there are legitimate uses of nutrient timing for certain people.
If you’re a bodybuilder or an endurance athlete, the meaning of nutrient timing is much different than if you’re an sedentary office worker just getting into exercise and trying to improve your nutrition.
Some people are already very lean, compete at an elite level of physique or athletics. For bodybuilders, physique competitors, and/or weight class athletes an extra half-percent of body fat can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Yet, there is one thing that trumps all of the above:
“The best nutrient timing in the world won’t compensate for poor-quality, mindless, and/or inconsistent food intake”
*This post was based on Brian St Pierre’s article “Is Nutrient Timing Dead?” for precisionnutrion.com