Does nutrient timing matter?
Yes and no. Nutrient timing is a pretty misunderstood topic.
Does it matter how many meals you eat in a day?
And what about timing your macros at specific times?
In today’s article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about nutrient timing, who benefits the most, and why it’s not the most important piece of the nutrition puzzle.
What is Nutrient Timing?
The foods you eat are made up of various ratios of proteins, fats, and carbs. Some foods are mostly proteins, some fat only, and others are pure carb sources.
So when someone hears the mention of nutrient timing what are they talking about?
The two aspects of nutrient timing are frequency and timing of individual macronutrients.
In terms of frequency of eating, ie how many meals you eat per day, what’s best may depend on the person. Some people prefer larger meals and so they would need to eat fewer meals throughout the day to make each meal a bit bigger.
Others prefer smaller meals spread out evenly through the day.
Whether you eat 3 or 6 meals, make sure each of them contains protein-rich foods. It’s important to keep amino acid levels up throughout the day to prevent muscle tissue loss and to help with muscle growth.
I’ve found with myself and the vast majority of my online coaching clients that eating meals spread pretty evenly throughout the day seems to work pretty well. Some like 3, some like 6. It’s important to understand that there aren’t hard and fast rule you must follow. You can make it individual to your preferences.
[Timing of Macros]
Protein, if you don’t know already, is super duper important to everyone’s overall diet. Aside from total calories, protein would be next on the list of importance.
Protein provides the necessary building blocks for muscle growth and spares muscle during periods of caloric deficits.
For these reasons, it’s probably a good idea to eat protein throughout the day, and in sufficient amounts. 0.8-1g/lb of bodyweight is a good starting place.
Bottom line: eat protein at all times of the day. Morning, noon and night. If you consume protein at each one of your meals, you’ll benefit the most.
Fats are tasty and also double the calories of proteins and carbs. Although they are tasty, they are not a direct fuel source for activity.
This is why consuming lower fat amounts around the workout would be a good idea. Eat the bulk of your daily fat intake farther away from your training that day.
Fats are difficult to digest, and slow the digestion of proteins and carbs. For this reason, it’s a good idea to consume fewer fats before your workout, during, and after your training session.
Utilize other times of the day to get your healthy fat intake in.
Carbs are your fuel for activity.
If you don’t eat carbs, then I’ll gladly take what you don’t want.
The timing of carbs can certainly be a huge benefit for activity and depending on the amount of exercise you’re doing, can be a game changer for performance.
As a general rule of thumb, eating the majority of your carbs before, during, and after training is a good idea. This doesn’t mean you can’t eat carbs at other times of the day, just that you want to have the bulk of them around the time you’ll be utilizing them the most.
Too many people worry more about what types of carbs they’re eating rather than the amounts. If you’re highly active and lifting like crazy, then you’ll benefit from more carbs. You can also enjoy more of the faster digesting carb sources like cereal, bagels, white rice etc.
Slower digesting carbs would be more beneficial further away from the workout. Things like oatmeal, whole grain bread, potatoes, whole wheat pasta etc.
So Just How Important is Nutrient Timing?
Here’s the thing: nutrient timing plays a small role in your overall diet success. Regardless if you’re losing weight, gaining weight, or maintaining your weight, nutrient timing is just a tiny piece of the nutritional pyramid.
So before you get bent out of shape because you didn’t have the perfect post-workout ratio of protein:carbs, you must first ask yourself if you’ve taken care of these priorities first and foremost:
- Calorie balance
- Macronutrient amounts
- Nutrient timing
You can have the perfect timing of your macronutrients based on your activity for the day but if your calories aren’t in line with your goals you’ll see no benefit.
You can be eating all of the healthiest foods you can think of, timing them perfectly throughout the day, and still not see results.
Why? Well if you don’t first make sure that the calories you’re consuming are in the right range for your goals, nothing else matters.
So, before you even mention nutrient timing you must first make sure that your calories are in check and you’re getting adequate protein, fat, and carbs.
Hands down, without the first one, you won’t see any results just by focusing on the timing of your food.
Nutrient timing isn’t going to get you that 80% of your results, so there’s no need to stress about it.
Now, if you have everything else in check, then why not take advantage of some nutrient timing strategies to fully maximize your diet?
How You Can Benefit
I’d like to give you an example of how you can benefit from nutrient timing without overcomplicating the whole idea.
Basically, you’ll want to eat protein throughout the day, evenly spread every 3-6 hours depending on the frequency of your meals.
Carbs, if following the idea of nutrient timing, should be placed around the workout, with fewer carbs farther away from the workout.
Fats can be eaten throughout the day, although consuming fewer fats around the workout would be best from a nutrient timing standpoint.
You can use this structure below for your own diet. It will change slightly depending on the amount of meals you eat throughout the day, but this is primarily for the workout window.
Pre-workout meal (1-3 hours before training)– lean protein, moderate carb, small amount of fat
During-workout- protein+fast digesting carb source (usually best for those training with high volumes. If not, you’d just have 2 of the post-workout meal structure)
Post-workout (30-90 minutes after training)– lean protein source, minimal fats, hefty dose of carbs
Your individual macro amounts are going to vary based on your bodyweight. The basic idea is that you want most of your days’ carbohydrates in these 3 ‘meals.’ Fat should be kept a bit lower at this time to allow the carbs to be digested faster and easier which help with performance and recovery.
Here’s my typical breakdown on an upper body lifting day:
4oz lean protein
~8 grams of fat
25g Gatorade powder
4oz lean protein
~8 grams of fat
~25-50 grams of carbs
Who it’s For and Who it’s Not For
Typical people who will benefit the most:
People who don’t need to think about nutrient timing quite yet:
-those who don’t perform lots of strenuous activity
-those new to dieting and eating healthy
Because nutrient timing is a small detail in the grand scheme of things, I’d recommend it for people who have already developed sound nutritional habits. Also for people who have been training consistently. These folks usually understand the role of calories and do a good job hitting that first and foremost.
Nutrient timing is most beneficial for people training with high volumes, athletes, and crossfitters. The general gym goer can benefit as well, and most of my online coaching clients use various types of nutrient timing with their own diets.
I wouldn’t worry so much about nutrient timing if you are someone just starting out. Focus on the calories first and foremost before worrying about the finer details.
Nutrient timing isn’t really necessary either if you aren’t training with weights, or lifting consistently. While any form of exercise is good, nutrient timing isn’t as big a concern if you’re primary means of exercise are light cardio or other light activity.
Nail the Basics First
If you aren’t sure where to start, grab my free nutrition guide below.
Focus on the big picture nutrition principles and you’ll be on your way to a leaner, stronger, healthier body.