Nutrient Timing – Here’s what you need to know:
• Calories in vs. calories out still reigns king, it’s what takes the priority when considering performance and physical body composition changes for 95% of people… but you may fall into that 5% that needs to consider nutrient timing, too.
• Athletes and people with hormonal concerns should prioritize nutrient timing as a close second to total daily macros.
• Muscle growth can be optimized when nutrient timing is closely managed.
• Stress and energy deficient individuals (possible cortisol or adrenal complications), may benefit greatly from proper nutrient timing.
• Insulin sensitivity and daily energy expenditure are both influenced by nutrient timing.
• For adherence purposes, the driving force of long-term results, nutrient timing is crucial.
Meal timing is one of those topics that’s been debated since the dawn of time… well, maybe not that far back. But certainty since the beginning of sports nutrition and dietary fat loss or muscle gain.
And there seems to be 2 camps:
There’s the CICO Camp (Team Calories In vs. Calories Out) who believes that it’s completely irrelevant if your energy balance is in place, as it needs to be.
And then there’s the Anti-CICO Camp (Team Calorie Aren’t All Equal) who believes that calories are actually obsolete compared to the micronutrients you take in, environmental factors you surround yourself with, and lack of artificial foods you consume.
Well… At BBP, we tend to believe they’re both wrong.
Actually, I take that back. We believe they’re both right, in the sense that they make very valid points and each of them have specific things that are indeed factual. So we do need to learn from their theories and methods, but we also need to be extremely cautious about joining any camp that lives inside any absolutes.
Because the reality of nutrition is that there are ZERO absolutes and living by one single ideology is the fastest way to slowing progress down (or completely stalling the progress you could be seeing).
CICO (Cal In vs. Cal Out)
There is no denying this because it is a scientifically proven fact. We can’t really get around the fact that energy balance reigns king and will always play a role in the results we see. In fact, as broken down in our Free Ebook The Nutrition Hierarchy (click here to download your free copy), we often advise a level of importance and priority inside nutritional strategies and it starts with energy balance because of this very fact.
So before we get into the weeds of why nutrient timing does matter and why we’re revisiting this topic for the 3rd time on this blog (yes, this is the 3rd blog written on this topic dating back to 2014)… we need to understand what CICO is and why it’s important.
Athletes, general population, fat loss clients, bodybuilders looking to build muscle, or just the average Joe reading this who wants to avoid disease and live longer – CICO determines a lot of what happens inside your body from your central nervous system function to your hormonal system to your body composition, directly. CICO also influences your health, blood work, lifespan, disease prevention and many other things, in an indirect fashion.
This is the energy we take in vs. the energy we put out. And if that equation is off, such as your calories coming in are much greater than the calories you’re expending via exercise and daily activity, than you’re susceptible to accumulating more body fat, disrupting metabolic processes, adding internal (and later on external) stress, and possibly creating dysfunction inside the endocrine (hormonal) system.
Now that we understand a brief overview of what it is and it’s importance, I’m ready to move on.
The reality is that I don’t want to spend this article talking about CICO, rather just explaining it’s relevance and that it does play the biggest role in this nutrition game.
The circadian rhythm is the first thing to discuss when considering nutrient timing.
This is essentially your “body clock”, actually it’s not essentially – it’s literally your body clock. This is the timer our body was designed with that tells us when to sleep, wake up, eat, regulate physiological processes, etc…
Many things affect it – things like environment, stress, danger, sunlight, temperature, and last but clearly not least, nutrient timing.
So what about nutrient timing affects our circadian rhythm?
Our bodies were created to have a clock around when we eat and when we sleep. When we disturb that clock, we can disturb hormones and the physiological processes we need to thrive and survive.
Going against this body clock can negatively impact cortisol levels, testosterone, metabolism, insulin sensitivity, digestion, thyroid function, nutrient absorption, and pretty much every other hormone we have.
All this tells us one thing… That nutrient timing matters for staying lean, building muscle, and actually feeling good every day. Because all the hormones it affects, directly impact our ability to get or stay lean, build or maintain muscle, and produce or sustain energy.
Think of cavemen. They hunted and ate when there was light. When light went out, they ran back to their cave to sleep and hide from predators.
The best thing you can do to impact this positively for less fat, more muscle and a better life is simple. Eat in a 12-hour time window during light and fast in a 12-hour window during the dark. If this doesn’t work for your schedule, try your best to abide by daylight or give yourself at least a 10-hour window from dinner to the next morning’s breakfast.
This is going to help your body’s ability to regulate its natural cortisol curve and melatonin production, helping you sleep and facilitate better recovery. But it’s also going to help digestion because you’re giving your gut a break every single day.
Digestion and Nutrient Absorption
My first point on nutrient timing covered this a bit, but let’s dig into the way your body digests and absorbs nutrients and why timing your meals influences this.
Everyone is very different, if you didn’t know, and some people can consume large meals with no problem at all. While others may experience gas, bloating, stomach pain, and grogginess shortly after eating if they consume more than 500 calories in a single meal.
That should tell you enough to change your meal timing and frequency. This is honestly the simplest bullet of them all, it’s merely telling you that you need to listen to your body and adjust according to how you feel depending on the amount of meals you eat per day.
It may take some trial and error, too.
I tried 6 meals per day, but felt like I was still hungry after each meal and hated eating so often. I got frustrated with the fact that I felt controlled by my meals.
So I did a complete 180 and I tried intermittent fasting, only eating 2 large meals per day. I woke up starving every morning, which led my strategy of removing my constant thoughts of food into exactly what I didn’t want anymore of – MORE thoughts about when the hell I could finally eat!
So I changed that up by adding breakfast in the morning, this meant 3 pretty big meals each day. But with that, I felt bloated and tired after each meal, which I also hated because it destroyed my production during work.
So finally I split it up into 4 meals per day that were all pretty close to even calorie wise. This was perfect for my energy, my digestion, and how I felt throughout the day.
Lets add to this… besides just feeling good and not walking around like a bloated, gassy, hangry, unproductive asshole all day – your body can only tolerate certain amounts of nutrients and food bulk at a time.
I know for myself personally, going over 60g of carbs in a single meal will put me to sleep. My body cannot tolerate much more than that, personally.
The reason I know this, is because I tested it and noted my biofeedback as the days went on (best way to learn more about how your body responds to your nutrition is to record your biofeedback – learn how with this free article). I also know this because I’ve tested my blood glucose response to foods right before, right after and 2-3 hours after a higher carb meal. This allowed me to see my actual insulin response to foods and determine the best portion sizes to consume each meal.
It’s also been shown that the body can digest and absorb nutrients more efficiently when not over done, which makes total sense. Eating too much at a given meal may leave you missing out on specific nutrients that were in that meal or not fully breaking down the macronutrients (protein, fats, carbs) within that meal. Enzymes in your body have to work when you eat, so we need to let them do their job.
So what amount of protein, fats, and/or carbs should you consume in each meal?
That I cannot answer, because we’re all special little snowflakes that have many differences across the board.
This one is simple. If you eat a meal 30 minutes before an intense workout, how do you feel? Like you’re going to throw up? Fart under the squat bar? Can’t really push yourself because you feel sluggish? Maybe you can just feel your stomach churning and breaking food down, which starts to distract you?
If you eat a meal 4 hours prior to a workout, do you still feel fueled? Or are you getting tired? Maybe you feel empty and that doesn’t feel good during training?
There are some layers to this…
1st → Your food, or fuel, needs to be broken down before you step into the gym. If it’s not, your body is focused on that and NOT performing.
2nd → If your food doesn’t have plenty time to be fully digested, it cannot be broken down into fuel for training. This will depend on the person and the carb source.
3rd → You should ideally have protein in your system 1-3 hours prior to training if you want to optimally stop muscle protein breakdown and optimize the rebuild and recover phase for this training session.
4th → Insulin sensitivity is higher around training. This simply means your body can break down and utilize calories – glucose/glycogen (carbs) specifically – before, during and after training.
5th → Without paying attention to 1-4 around your training session, your training session may suffer. This takes priority over post-workout nutrition in most cases because food is not rapidly digested, meaning what you have before may just supply what you need after, anyway.
6th → Last but not least, if you’re not fueling yourself the 24 hours PRIOR to training – then your system is going to be running on reserves and that’s not nearly as effective as it would be if you were to properly fuel your body on a daily basis.
All that being said, I think nutrient timing in relation to your training has 2 main key points for us all to consider and a few more that we’ll get into in relation to athletic performance and muscle mass.
But for the 99% of people reading this, the 2 biggest things you need to consider here are:
Do what works for you! What makes you feel best during your training? Figure that out and repeat that before every training session.
The 24 hours prior to your training matters more than the 2 hours prior! This is what most people seem to either neglect or completely forget. But the reality is that carbohydrates, unless we’re talking about something like Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin – which is not the typical meal choice, don’t immediately digest and absorb to provide you with energy. They actually need to be broken down, absorbed, and transported into the muscle glycogen system in order to be used as fuel later on.
Intra and Post Workout Nutrition
This is for the athletes and muscle monsters we work with, basically anyone who has the goal of improving performance at all costs or building more lean muscle mass.
In these cases, there are two things to consider and one of them may actually directly impact you even if you’re not an athlete – but rather the average individual who wants to lose fat, yet lives a higher stress lifestyle.
Chronically elevated cortisol levels are something that is unfortunately extremely common amongst the people we work with, because many of us in today’s day and age live high stress lifestyles and/or lack quality sleep.
This occurs when we have too much stress, plain and simple.
Stress creates a hormonal response to create cortisol, the stress hormone that puts us into a sympathetic nervous system “mode” which allows us to actually deal with this stress.
In life or death situations, which our bodies were likely designed to handle, it makes a lot of sense. A saber tooth tiger is chasing your family, cortisol rises and puts you into a sympathetic nervous system drive (fight or flight) which allows your muscles to react immediately and give you’re the speed and strength to either run or fight.
The problem, now, is that this response happens when an angry client or sales rep calls you while at your desk.
Now you’re sitting down in a heightened state, your hip flexors tighten and your nervous system is firing on all cylinders. This leads to overly tight hips, pain in your lower back, and a dysfunctional thyroid – which leads to a massive list of other hormonal problem.
Now you leave work and you get to go to the gym, your sanctuary where you can release stress… right?
WRONG. Actually it’s where you go to heighten that stress, even more. Because your body needs to tap into that sympathetic response again, or just more, in order to perform in the gym.
Now you go home to your family and you’re STILL IN STRESS MODE.
You’re probably more irritated, more reactive, tired yet wired, and likely pretty moody.
So how do we fix this? Or at least begin to combat it?
Timing your carbs effectively throughout your day but more importantly immediately post workout.
Yes – I said it. Take your post workout shake, right away! This goes against what all the guru’s and science bro’s are pushing right now, but there’s a great reason.
See in most cases this is irrelevant, unless you’re pushing stress hard in your life. Because carbohydrates spike insulin harder than any other nutrient, especially when the carbohydrate is something like HBCD, which is a rapidly digesting carbohydrate. When we spike insulin like this, we blunt the cortisol response and it lowers our stressful state – allowing us to tap into what’s called parasympathetic mode (rest and digest – or recover).
Now our body calms down and begins to facilitate a true recovery state.
So in the case of hormonal health, stress management, muscle recovery, and fat loss – this post workout nutrient timing strategy is massively helpful and I’ve watched it work wonders for hundreds of individuals we’ve helped.
The second thing here is using these exact same carbs (HBCD) as an intra-workout (during) shake – in combination with EAA (essential amino acids).
This is used as a way to facilitate immediate energy, recovery, and muscle repair. Studies have shown that this not only helps with the cortisol response, which can elicit more muscle growth, but it can literally help build cross section muscle fibers.
This means studies have literally shown muscle growth increases in groups consuming an intra-workout shake as such, vs. a group not consuming anything intra-workout.
[This one was all on carbs, to go knee deep in the benefit behind carbs – read this]
I like to think I’m a high level producer, because I’m a very passionate entrepreneur who has a lot of things going on. A lot of things that cause me to be FOCUSED and really get shit done.
I also work with many entrepreneurs and high-level business-people that are in the exact same position.
So what does this have to do with meal timing?
This means we want to take full advantage of feeling good, having energy, and keeping our brain power at the highest level possible – aka memory, focus, sharpness, quick thinking, problem solving, etc.
I’ve found through experience with myself and working with hundreds of others that timing your meals according to your schedule and lifestyle can be a HUGE benefit to produce more.
I’ll also preface that food quality plays a massive role here. If you’re filling your body with processed foods constantly, you will have brain fog regardless of when you time your nutrients. But if you’ve got that box checked, nutrient timing does play a role.
This also means timing specific nutrients in at specific times, so that you can produce.
Here’s a great example for someone who needs to be producing work during the day, trains in the evening, and goes home to be with family at night (which is 75% of average people):
Meal #1 → High Protein/Fat with LOTS of Nutrient Dense Foods.
Whole Egg Scramble [with Optional Extra Whites], Spinach/Kale, Peppers, Mushrooms, Cooked in Coconut Oil, and Supplemented with Greens Powder, Fish Oil, Curcumin and a Probiotic
Meal #2 → High Protein/Fat with LOTS of Nutrient Dense Foods.
Big Mixed Greens Salad with Grilled Salmon, Veggies Galore, and a Low-Cal Vinaigrette Dressing
Meal #3 → High Protein, Moderate-High Carb, Pre-Workout Meal
Super Shake with Whey or Vegan Protein, Creatine, Berries, Banana, and Small Amount of Nut Butter [Moderate Carb Option]
Lean Meat [chicken, steak or fish], White Rice, Grass Fed Butter [on rice], ½ Teaspoon Iodized Salt, and Hot Sauce of Choice. [Higher Carb Option]
Meal #4 → Whatever Is On The Menu For The Family!
Eat real food, keep it clean and be present with your damn family. Ideally high protein, high veggie, and some starchy carbs in there.
Anyone who eats this way will be leaner and therefore feel more confident, have more energy and carry themselves better, which directly correlates to producing more in each aspect of their life…
But they’re also actually eating the right nutrients at the right time in order to stimulate their brain more effectively to produce more and better work.
As you may have noticed:
→ Protein is in every meal
→ Breakfast is predominantly protein/fats
→ Carbs are placed in the afternoon/evening around workouts
This is going to optimize insulin sensitivity, avoid carb induced crashes, simplify things, and keep your mind clear during the earlier hours of the day.
Now, if you’re someone who needs to put on weight or size – this is likely going to change because we simply need more carbs. But the majority of people reading this may not be in that position.
Saved the most important, yet the simplest, for last.
If you cannot adhere to a diet plan, you’re out of luck. Period. That is the number one factor in seeing results that last.
All’s this means is finding something you can be consistent with, day after day and month after month.
Like I said before, I went through so many different meal timing options before I found what works for me but now that I’ve found it – it’s easy for me to stick to each and every day, because I know what to expect and I know that it will work for my schedule without stress.
So to wrap this up with the most important factor of all… Find what nutrient timing you can personally adhere to long term and you’ve won.
Cody McBroom is owner and head coach of Boom Boom Performance. He’s a Strength Coach and Nutrition Expert located in Seattle WA. He coaches people in person and online, now internationally. His passion is helping individuals changing their lives through body composition transformation, as well as creating content across all platforms to help individuals and other coaches learn more about training and nutrition.