Nutrient timing is the concept that what you eat should have a purpose based on what you are doing or did. For example, it's not just about how many macros you consume, i.e. the grams of carbs or grams of protein, but also about when you eat them.
Macronutrients are the big three - carbs, fat and protein. Inside of these carb, fat, and protein sources are what we call micro nutrients. Some argue that micronutrients are why we actually consume macronutrients (not solely, but a major contributor). We aren’t going to dive into the weeds of that argument, but we do want to bring up the idea of nutrient dense foods.
When talking about nutrient dense foods, we are often referring to the micronutrient profile of a food. So what we mean by that is there is your meal, say a sandwich, which consists of different ingredients (meat products, produce and bread). Within those ingredients are your macronutrients and within the makeup of those ingredients are your micronutrients. This is why eating a sweet potato is (almost definitely) more beneficial than eating a bag of chips. The density of nutrients in sweet potatoes could potentially outweigh that in a chip.
So how does this apply to nutrient timing for optimal performance?
Before you workout, you want to make sure you consume macros that will be the fuel source for the upcoming exercise. So eating enough carbs and protein before and after a workout might help the anabolic response of the workout itself.
Even eating the right foods before bed could arguably help stabilize blood glucose during sleep and eating the right foods before you go into a big business meeting might help you stay focused and not doze off. Appropriate carbohydrate timing and amounts can go a long way in helping you maximize performance. We'll go into exactly how to figure this out, but first, let's de-stigmatize carbs.
Carbs Are Not Evil
Carbs are one of the most, if not the most, misunderstood macros. They have been demonized and tossed under a large umbrella of being “unhealthy”.
The initial craze around cutting out carbs occurred when its associations with diabetes and weight were brought to the public. However, like anything in our body, it’s not that simple.
When looking at foods in general, but especially carbs, it’s about context. First and foremost, carbs are not bad for you. Carbs are the body’s source of fuel and shift as a primary source during anaerobic exercise (lifting weights and higher intensity training).
When you are training, your body is under stress to provide the energy necessary to perform the task at hand. Metabolic mobilization can increase 10-fold just from a single exercise stressor. In other words, exercise requires a lot of fuel.
The more intense the exercise is, the more fuel you need to sustain your energy levels. Fuel can be stored in your muscle as glycogen, but also transported in the blood as glucose. Glucose either comes from the food you just ate or from your liver where it was released to help aid in providing the necessary energy for exercise. And guess where glycogen and glucose predominantly come from?
This is why having post workout carbs can be extremely helpful for energy restoration. On that note, your body is still burning carbs, even when you are at rest. Blood glucose is what we call your “blood sugar”. Excessive spikes in blood sugar from foods that are high in carbs that are absorbed and processed fast are what started the major concern about carbs-diabetes and overweight associations.
However, not all carbs cause this kind of spike (more refined and processed foods do) and this spike needs to be taken in context - glycemic load versus glycemic index which we discuss below.
In short, not all sources of carbs are created equal. Because carbs are fuel, they need to be understood in the context of your goals, your training and how you feel. Certain strategies may help you get carbs around “important” windows of training (before, during and after).
Typically, the closer you get to the training/workout/competition window, the more of a focus you would have on carbs/protein and less of fat/fiber. Simple, faster-digesting carbs/meals closer to your workouts with complex carb focused meals at other times of the day is a good rule of thumb, but this will always be specific to the individual athlete. Taking in post-workout protein and carbohydrates to replenish depleted glycogen stores is also critical for proper recovery.
This is where understanding the difference between glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) can be helpful in determining what, when, and how much to eat at any given time during the day to help maximize your performance.
Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
Often confused, glycemic index and glycemic load are two different measurements of how our bodies respond to carbohydrates. Glycemic index measures how quickly food breaks down to sugar in the bloodstream rated on a scale of 0-100.
However, it does NOT take into account the actual serving size of food. Watermelon for example has a very high GI = approx 80 while its GL is a meager 5. What does this tell us? The GI is high because it is based on 5 cups of watermelon, not the standard 1 cup serving size. The relatively low GL shows that the carbohydrate content of 1 cup of watermelon isn't much at all because watermelon is mostly well, you guessed it, water.
Research suggests that the glycemic load is a better indicator of how carbohydrate will affect blood sugar because it takes into account the amount of carbs in food.
The formula used to determine glycemic load is GI x Carbohydrate (g) content per portion ÷ 100.
The bottom line is that low GL foods will keep you feeling fuller longer without significantly spiking your blood sugar. Focusing on minimally processed, fiber and nutrient rich food sources will keep your diet both low GI and GL and might possibly lower that scale number too.
Now that we've covered carbs, what about protein?
Research has shown that protein intake, for example, leads to optimal recovery and hypertrophy if evenly spread out every 3-4 hours with approximately 20 - 50 grams of high quality protein per meal.
In a 2013 study by Areta et al, the researchers determined how different distributions of protein feeding during the 12 hour recovery period after resistance exercise affected anabolic responses in skeletal muscle.
“In conclusion, 20 g of whey protein consumed every 3 h was superior to either PULSE or BOLUS feeding patterns for stimulating MPS throughout the day.”
Whey protein digests quickly and has a complete amino acid profile, which is why it was used in this study.
This doesn't necessarily mean that you must have a protein shake immediately after you work out, as was once the belief. In fact, as long as your total daily protein intake for the day is where it needs to be for your goals, you're not missing any kind of "anabolic window." Total protein intake for the day can be looked at as the base upon which the specific timing of your protein intake is based on.
In another recent study in 2020, the authors concluded that consuming a protein-enriched meal at breakfast and less protein at dinner while achieving an adequate overall protein intake is more effective than simply consuming more protein at dinner.
Putting It All Together
The point is, nutrient timing is a concept that is as simple as eating the right foods at the right time and as complex as knowing how those foods interact with your body to help optimize performance outcomes.
Make sure to check out our delicious Whey Protein Isolate for your post-workout recovery needs. We've created an all-natural protein shake that actually tastes great, is gluten-free, non-GMO, and has been third party tested for potency and purity.