Nutrient timing is the simple concept of knowing what to eat before, during, and after exercise. It seems like there are just as many experts in the camp of “nutrient timing doesn’t matter as much as hitting your daily macronutrient goals” as there are for “nutrient timing is absolutely essential for losing body fat and building muscle.”
So what’s the truth here?
Does nutrient timing really matter?
Let’s set aside the assumptions and dissect some of the facts and science about nutrient timing.
Here’s what you should know.
- The anabolic window for getting protein and carbohydrates after your workout exists, but it’s probably not what you think it is.
- Insulin is one of the key players in dictating your body’s ability to build muscle or lose fat.
- There are distinct differences in types of carbohydrates and what they do to your insulin levels.
- Pop culture and mainstream fitness has propagated the anabolic window for years, but that sentiment may have little to no scientific backing.
Insulin, Your Gains, and Fat Loss
Insulin is really one of the prime influences when it comes to maintaining or achieving the body composition that you want. Insulin opens the gates to either your muscle tissue or your fat tissue, depending on the state that your body is in to receive it.
Your body is in prime condition to handle spikes in insulin production after your workouts because your muscle tissue requires nutrients to be able to recover properly. That basically means that your body is more carbohydrate tolerant after your workout (how long after is going to be covered later). Therefore, the majority of your carbohydrate calories consumed after a workout will go toward muscle tissue, which will help you build and grow, and also keep your fat gain at a minimum.
Of course, that nutrient partitioning capability is also affected by…
- The type of physical activity you are engaging in.
- The intensity of your workout.
- The length of your workout.
- Your current body composition.
- Your genetics.
- If you have eaten during the day before you work out, or if you fasted.
- And a variety of other factors from medication and sleep quality to any supplements you might be using.
As you can see, there are tons of factors that impact your body’s ability to partition nutrients after your workout.
The Differences in Carbohydrates
The quality of carbohydrates play a big role in how your body is able to use them and tolerate them after your workout, or any other time of the day. Complex or slow-burning carbs like vegetables, fruit, beans, and legumes you can (and should) eat at any time of the day and will hardly raise your blood sugar or insulin. Since they are high in fiber and low in sugar, these foods are great for losing body fat and filling you up, so feel free to include them in every meal.
The middle-ground is for foods like oats, potatoes, sweet potatoes, whole grains, whole wheat, and brown rice. These carbohydrates are moderately slow burning, but definitely raise your blood sugar more than vegetables and black beans. I wouldn’t recommend eating these foods any other time of the day except for after your workout when your body can use them effectively.
Whether your goal is building muscle or losing fat, I wouldn’t advise consuming a ton of simple or processed carbs like pastries, snack cakes, cookies, juice, soda, chips, donuts, alcohol, white rice, and cereals that are packed with sugar. If it’s a Friday night or a weekend and you know that you are going to be eating or drinking any of these, plan ahead so that you can workout before. That muscle stimulation will help with damage control so that you can at least keep the fat gain to a minimum.
Basically, if your goal is fat loss and weight loss, stay away from the medium and low quality carbs as much as you can. Limit the medium quality carbohydrates to after your workout, and do not eat them earlier in the day.
If your goal is to build muscle, your diet can be a little more flexible. I recommend consuming the majority of your daily carbohydrates before and after your workout. You can even have a shake during if you need to be consuming more calories for performance and weight gain. Consume mid-quality, starchy carbohydrates like potatoes, whole grains, oats, and rice after your workout to help you maximize your muscle building efforts, while keep fat gain at a minimum.
Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day?
Yes and no, depending on who you are and what you’re eating. Let’s clear this up, you don’t need to eat breakfast to help you lose fat. You don’t even need to eat breakfast to build muscle, although it can help.
Fasting a meal here and there can be great for fat loss, but it definitely isn’t for everyone. In fact, Mark Sisson lays out some of the really incredible health benefits for exercising in a fasted state.
If you enjoy eating breakfast or have to have your breakfast in the morning to be able to function and you want to lose weight, it’s best to keep the insulin as level as possible after you wake up. I’ve noticed that the days that I have starchy breakfasts, the hungrier I get within a few hours after eating it. Make your breakfasts rich in proteins, healthy fats, and slow burning carbs that we mentioned earlier.
Yes! That totally means I’m giving you permission to eat bacon and eggs every morning for breakfast.
When I do eat breakfast (whether I am cutting or gaining) my plate tends to look like…
- 3-4 whole eggs
- ½-1 cup of refried beans
- 2-4 ounces of chorizo or 2-4 strips of bacon
- 8 ounces of pulled chicken or pork
Not a bad start to the day, right?
What science says about Nutrient Timing
Conclusion: it does NOT appear that you are in a peak nutrient synthesizing, anabolic state in the first 30-60 minutes after your workout. There is very little concrete, long term evidence that shows that it is absolutely critical to eat a high protein, high carbohydrate meal as soon as you leave the gym.
So don’t feel like you have to hit the panic button for some whey and a steak as soon as you crush your last set.
I have read several different studies just this week that have all pointed out different windows of time that are associated with the ideal post-workout, anabolic state. None of those studies affirmed that you had to consume a high protein, high carb meal within 30-60 minutes after your workout to have the highest rate of protein synthesis. Ideal times across those studies actually varied from 1-6 hours after your workout is over. One even indicated that your protein synthesis didn’t peak until 24 hours AFTER your workout is over.
Final Thoughts on Nutrient Timing and Who it Really Benefits
The kinds of calories you eat and the total amount of nutrients that you get every day are definitively more important than the nutrient timing. Athletes are are the people who benefit from it the most from nutrient timing, mainly because they need more calories overall to be able to perform and train at the highest level, for hours every day.
The lower your body fat percentage and the more muscular you are, the better your body is at nutrient partitioning and the more tolerant you will be to carbohydrates.
Those who benefit from nutrient timing the least appear to be people who are overweight or obese, that are trying to those weight. If you happen to fall into that category, put your focus on eating a high protein, high fat diet with a lot of slow burning carbs like veggies, fruits, beans, and legumes.