Nutrient Timing: When and What to Eat

By Skyler Zarndt MS, ATC, RSCC

Most people, especially if you’re reading this blog, have probably heard that when you eat can be just as important as what you eat.

An example would be – No Carbs after 7 pm if you’re trying to get lean.

Or make sure you don’t skip breakfast, it’s the most important meal of the day.

And an example regarding post workout nutrition – there is an “anabolic window” that lasts 30-45 minutes after we finish intense exercise when we should consume our food.  Regardless of whether there is an anabolic window (studies have shown that there is, but the research is done in regards to short term effects), or if someone should limit their carbohydrate intake after 7 pm, can we say we know for certain that when we eat is critical for reaching our goals?

A lot of how and what and when we eat is completely dependent upon our goals.  Do we want to gain muscle mass, lose fat, have better results on our blood tests, or fit into an old pair of pants?  If you’re like most people, you want to be healthy and you want to look better naked.  It’s the truth.

There are a handful of different “eating” trends floating around, but who is to say which one is definitively better than the other?  In a previous post, I talked about intermittent fasting, its benefits and drawbacks, and whether the fad actually held any water.  It is a powerful eating habit that may be right for some.  Perhaps you choose a low carbohydrate diet , and you may have had a lot of success with this method.

So should we ignore the idea of nutrient timing and eat whatever we want, whenever we want?  Absolutely not.

All I’m saying is that there are multiple strategies regarding what and when to eat that can help us achieve our goals.  Let me give you an example:

Let’s assume that we workout at a fairly intense level (weight lifting, interval training, etc.) on Monday and Thursday.  On Tuesday and Friday, we also workout, but it’s slightly less intense.  Some light weightlifting, maybe a group class, but we definitely break a sweat.  On Wednesday and Saturday, we have an active recovery day.  Light cardiovascular activity, some stretching, see you later.  And of course, we rest on Sunday.

And we’ll clean that up and it’ll look like this:

  • Monday – High Intensity
  • Tuesday – Medium Intensity
  • Wednesday – Low Intensity/Recovery Work
  • Thursday – High Intensity
  • Friday – Medium/Low Intensity
  • Saturday – Low Intensity/Recovery Work
  • Friday – Off

So, now that we have an idea of what we are doing, and we have our goal in mind (better body composition), here is a simple example of how we can time our nutrients (FOOD) on these days to help us achieve said goal.  As a disclaimer, this is a gross generalization meant to act as a guide.  If you would like to discuss nutrition and/or nutrient timing in further detail, please contact me.

  • Monday
    • Post Workout: High Protein, High Carbs.  This is when we should eat the vast majority of our carbohydrates.  Fruits, grains, starches, etc…Our intense workout has given our body an increased glucose tolerance.  Our body wants to replenish glucose and glycogen stores and to start repairing muscle that has been broken down.
    • Rest of Day: High Protein, Low Carbs, Low/Moderate Fat
  • Tuesday
    • Post Workout: High Protein, Moderate Carbs.  For the same reason mentioned above, but our workout was slightly less intense today, so less carbohydrates are required to replenish stores in our muscles and liver.  We keep protein levels high to make sure we have adequate amino acids present to help with protein synthesis.
    • Rest of Day: High Protein, Low Carbs, Moderate Fat.
  • Wednesday
    • Post Workout: Moderate Protein, High Fat, Low Carbs.  Since Wednesday is a light recovery day focused around cardiovascular activity, we simply don’t have a need for a high amount of carbohydrates after our workout.  The body has plenty of energy available in the form of fat stores.  In fact, fat is a better energy source for long term activity than carbs.
    • Rest of Day: Moderate/High Protein, High Fat, Low Carbs.
  • Thursday
    • Post Workout: Same as Monday.
    • Rest of Day: Same as Monday.
  • Friday
    • Post Workout: Same as Tuesday.
    • Rest of Day: Same as Tuesday.
  • Saturday
    • Post Workout: Same as Wednesday.
    • Rest of Day: Same as Wednesday.
  • Sunday
    • Enjoy Yourself in Moderation!

As you can see, we try to eat a majority of our sugary (from fruit) and/or starchy carbs after we have a bout of intense exercise.  Like previously stated, the body has a different metabolic response to glucose after exercise.  Taking in good, quality carbs at this time can allow us to keep our sanity while also helping us with our fitness and health related goals.

On days when we don’t work so hard, it’s still important that we get plenty of vegetables in our diet, but this is a time when we probably don’t have as much wiggle room when it comes to carbohydrates.  I always tell clients or my athletes who are concerned about body composition that “they need to EARN their carbs….” If you bust ass at the gym, you can probably “afford” the extra carbs.

On days when we have lower carbohydrate intake, our fat intake should be higher to counteract the lack of calories coming in from carbs, and our protein should always remain at a moderate to high level.  Just please don’t go high fat, high protein, high carbohydrates.  Protein remains high, and fat and carbs counterbalance each other.

So will timing your nutrients and calories instantly help you achieve your goals?  Probably not.  But I do believe that it’s a start.

And more importantly, if you’re thinking about nutrient timing, then you’re also thinking about what you’re eating.  And that’s where we will see some major changes and some major progress!

Everyone is different and everyone’s physiology will react differently.  Try this template of eating, and maybe it will work for you.  Maybe it won’t.  But what it WILL do is get you thinking more critically about what you put in your mouth.  And that’s the most important thing!

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