A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about nutrient timing with regards to meal frequency. In that post, I promised to address the science of macronutrient timing, which I will do today.
The problem with having blogged for four years is that sometimes I feel as though I have already written about every topic under the sun, so I’m wary of becoming repetitive. However, I do not expect most people who read my blog today to have been reading my blog for years (if you have, then thank you!). Secondly, many of my opinions have changed over time and sometimes I can disagree with something I wrote a few months ago – let alone something I wrote years ago!
Let me start off by saying nutrient timing is a very complex topic, and something which cannot really be covered in a 1,000 word blog post. For the sake of simplicity, I am talking about how to best time your macronutrient (protein, carbohydrate and fat) intake to manipulate body composition and achieve optimal athletic performance.
Once you have decided how many calories to consume per day (which you can do with the help of this post), you need to figure out how many grams of protein, carbohydrate and fat to eat. You will then need to decide how to split those macros between each meal.
Everyone experiences rises and falls in their hormone levels throughout the day. This means that your body is naturally primed for fat loss/gain and muscle loss/gain at certain times of day.
In theory, if you are not eating according to these natural hormonal fluctuations, you are wasting your potential. These hormones can be influenced by the time of day you work out, and nutrient timing is all about manipulating that to your advantage.
First and foremost, every single meal should contain a serve of protein. This is where a lot of people go wrong: they eat snacks which are carb- or fat-only, and wonder why they feel hungry again an hour later. Regardless of your goal, you must eat protein with every meal.
Carbohydrates pre- and post-workout
At a minimum, you should consume carbohydrates in your pre- and post-workout meals. Although your body can tap into its glycogen stores during exercise, eating a meal rich in protein and carbohydrates one to two hours before your workout will provide you with energy, which will drastically improve your performance. It will also prevent your body from turning catabolic – that is, breaking down its muscle stores to fuel your workout.
I believe there are more negatives than positives when it comes to working out in a fasted state, so I do not recommend it. If you’re working out first thing in the morning and do not have time for a proper meal, have something quick-digesting such as a protein shake and a banana. Something is better than nothing!
For approximately one hour post-workout, your body is primed for muscle building. During this “anabolic window”, your insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance is at its highest, meaning your body will take the glucose in your bloodstream and deliver it to the cells which need it – those cells which have been depleted from exercise.
Almost anything you ingest will be used as fuel or for glycogen resynthesis. During this period, you can eat high glycaemic carbohydrates that you wouldn’t necessarily eat at other times, such as white bread, ice cream and donuts (of course, I believe any sane person can eat those foods at any time, within moderation, but I am solely speaking in the context of ideal nutrient timing).
If you do not eat within that one hour window, the theory is that your body will start breaking down its own muscle tissue to commence the recovery process. Your goal for the post-workout period should be to repair the muscle tissue which has been damaged through exercise as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Your post-workout meal should contain a serve of protein, and your largest serve of carbohydrates for the day.
Carbohydrates at other times
Outside of the pre- and post-workout meals, your carbohydrate intake will vary dramatically depending on your goals. Regardless, everyone should consume at least 100 grams of carbohydrates per day. Nothing makes me cringe harder than when I see grown ass men eating no starchy carbs whatsoever.
If you are trying to lose fat, I recommend limiting your carbs to pre- and post-workout only. In this manner, your body will receive carbohydrates when it can utilise them most and rely on protein and fat for energy the remainder of the time, which will encourage fat burning.
If you are trying to gain strength and size, you can afford to include carbohydrates at every meal. Most people mistakenly believe that they must eat more protein to get bigger and stronger but, while that is true, your body cannot utilise protein properly without the presence of carbohydrates. The principles of meal timing still apply to encourage muscle gain rather than fat gain, so you should eat the bulk of your carbohydrates post-workout.
Although lifting weights will give your metabolism somewhat of a boost for the remainder of the day as your body continues to recover, your insulin sensitivity will markedly reduce.
This is where it becomes important to listen to your own body. Some people have a poor carbohydrate tolerance and will do better eating the same number of calories from fat. Others will feel better and still be able to lose weight while eating carbohydrates with every meal and keeping their fat intake low.
Generally speaking, the lower your body fat percentage and the more physically active you are throughout the day, the more carbohydrates you will be able to tolerate.
Where fat fits in
For those meals where you do not have carbohydrates, have fat instead (alongside protein and veggies, of course). Fat is slow-digesting and should be avoided immediately post-workout, when your body requires nutrients quickly.
If your goal is fat loss, you may see the best results adhering to something such as the following.
Meal one: Protein, fat, vegetables
Meal two: Protein, fat, vegetables
Meal three (pre-workout): Protein, carbohydrate, vegetables
Meal four (post-workout): Protein, carbohydrate
Meal five: Protein, fat, vegetables
The exact portions will depend on a wide variety of factors including goals, current body composition, and intensity of exercise performed.
All of this said, unless you are an elite level athlete, there is no reason to obsess over a few grams of carbs or fat. Those who are simply looking to improve their overall health and fitness will see more benefit in looking at the broad picture and focus on controlling their caloric intake in general, rather than zeroing in on particular macros.
As I said in part one of this series, it often comes down to personal preference. I personally do not enjoy eating carbohydrates at breakfast (which is now my pre-workout meal), as they make me feel sluggish. I prefer to eat carbs post-workout and in the evening instead.
You do you.
Do you pay particular attention to timing your macros throughout the day?