What is the best way to utilize nutrient timing and meal frequency to maximize results?
Dara: This is a tough one, as it’s variable depending on your goals, where you are at physically already, your genetics, and even your schedule. Some people do well with multiple meals and some do not. In general I would recommend several small meals throughout the day, spaced about 2-3 hours apart. If you are trying to lose body fat I would recommend eating your carbs only in the first three meals of the day and/or before and after your workouts. If you are trying to gain muscle I would spread your carbs throughout the day in order to take advantage of its insulin spiking effects to drive anabolism. It’s important to eat a pre workout meal that includes protein and carbs about 1 to 1.5 hours before a workout, allowing enough time for the meal to digest and the stomach to be empty. Unless you are training for an endurance event, intra workout nutrition is not necessary, except perhaps BCAA’s in your water. From the studies I’ve read ingesting carbs during a workout may possibly spare glycogen but it’s unclear if that actually has an impact on your workout beyond allowing you to workout for longer, which is useful for endurance athletes but not necessarily strength athletes or the every day fitness buff. After your workout you want to eat protein and carbs within the 45 minute anabolic window to maximize protein uptake and glycogen replenishment. This is what I would use with most people, unless it didn’t work, at which point I would try other strategies. However, I don’t consider myself an expert on other strategies like carb back loading or intermittent fasting, so I will let others speak to that as I know some people are successful with that as well.
Colin: This is a pretty loaded question. I could not only write an article about this but probably a whole series. There are so many individual scenarios that can come into play it’s a pretty complex answer. I will do my best to keep it short and simple. This may sound like a cop-out response but I think the big key is making sure you do get all the right nutrients in, and not so much the timing. I’m not by any means saying timing isn’t important or you couldn’t do better by timing in a certain way, but bottom line is the most important thing is getting them all in. Whether it’s eating 6 times, 4 times or 2 times day. Personally when I’m in a muscle-building phase I usually eat larger meals only a few times a day but while I’m in a fat loss stage I eat more frequent smaller meals. With muscle-building a larger meal will keep you in an anabolic state for at least 5 hours, and I won’t be as hungry due to the bigger meals. When it comes to fat loss I prefer more meals mainly to help deal with hunger levels while on a calorie deficit. No matter what I don’t see any need to eat any more frequently than 3 hours. The only other thing I’m big on other than nutrition related to training is when it comes to fat loss I think it’s best to avoid carbs in the morning when insulin sensitivity is at its highest. Not to say you can’t be successful in losing fat with carbs in the morning too.
Now as for training times, this is when nutrient timing is the most important. You definitely want to take advantage of that anabolic window after a workout. During this time is when it’s best to get some good fast digesting carbs and protein in to help replenish glycogen stores and promote recovery. I’m personally not a big fan of intra-workout nutrition but some carbs can be consumed if it’s going to be very intense, even still I’d rather opt for some BCAA’s. Pre-workout especially comes down to each individual’s goals. Carbs are best to boost energy levels but you do so at the expense of testosterone levels. If fat loss is the goal I especially recommend avoiding carbs because you definitely don’t want an insulin reaction before training in that case. Personally, whether I’m in a muscle-building stage or a fat loss stage, I usually consume a whey protein drink an hour before my workout and nothing else.
Dara: Interesting points Colin. Are you saying that you don’t need carbs to top up glycogen levels preworkout if all of your macros have been consumed in the previous days? And when you are talking about an insulin reaction before training how close to training are you talking and what would be the effects of an insulin spike too close to training? I’ve always had carbs in the morning and as part of my pre and post workout meals. Like we have both said, it’s very individual and there are many ways to be successful but I would like to hear you elaborate a bit more on those points. Thanks!
Matt: I think the most important thing, aside from meeting your nutritional needs daily, all revolve around pre and post training nutrition. If you are in a muscle-building phase then preworkout carbs are a good idea as of course is protein. If it’s fat loss that’s your concern then I’d be careful about how many carbs are in that pre workout meal or shake. You want enough for fuel but you also want to be tapping into fat stores, especially if cardio or circuit training is part of your routine. If carb backloading is the plan then I wouldn’t have any at all.
As far as post workout nutrition is concerned, if it’s muscle-building then by all means have a load of carbs with that protein. Regarding fat loss there are two ways to go. You can skip the carbs and by doing so prolong the fat burning that you set in motion with your training, or there is always the option of carb back loading. Dara mentioned this but essentially it means consuming all of your carbs post training. By doing so you are in a heightened state of insulin sensitivity and there is unlikely to be any spill over.
Regarding the rest of your day I don’t think meal frequency matters at all. It’s what you are comfortable doing and what works best for you. Whether it’s two meals or six, it all will work.
I personally like larger meals and will most of the time have several shakes for the day and have my big meal post training. This is something I’ve done for years and it just works best for me. I can elaborate on the type of shakes if you are interested but I’m very comfortable with this method even though I have met no one in person who likes this plan at all. I went through a period during the fall and winter where I focused on food only to try to grow but have since gone back to this method. I didn’t like eating all the time to be honest. I also like the control I have over what I eat and I’ve said before that I feel that whey is vastly superior to all proteins and this is a way to get a lot of it. The food meal covers the rest of what I need to get and the part I like best is I can eat as much as I want. It’s my method of under eating /over eating and I’ve consistently gotten the results I want with this regardless of whether it’s muscle-building or fat loss I’m after.
Colin: Dara – when I’m talking about fat loss the effects of an insulin reaction right before a workout is hampering your body’s ability to burn fat right when you are trying to do that very thing, burn fat. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to limit your body’s ability to burn fat right before a workout. You want to tap into those fat stores as soon as possible, but we covered that with our round table on fasted vs. fed round table so no need to go down that path again. When I’m talking about muscle-building it’s less of an issue for sure and I’m not against it but the effects of carbs pre-workout in that scenario is lowered testosterone levels. To me having higher testosterone levels is a fair tradeoff for any potentially depleted glycogen levels. For sure I don’t like to have carbs an hour before training but usually two hours max.
I’m completely in agreement about it being fun to see so many different ways people can go about having success. There is no standard and as I said in my first response you absolutely can get to and maintain low body fat levels with carbs pre-workout or any time of the day. It’s all personal preference and seeing what works for you. Matt brought up carb-backloading and as you probably remember from my carb-backloading series I’m a big fan of it. Like he said, in that instance, I’m very much against carbs pre-workout. Another thing to keep in mind is I’m some sort of freak who doesn’t see much of a drop in energy levels that many people do when they don’t have carbs before a workout so it’s easier for me to get away with it. If you have low energy and can hardly get through a workout without carbs, it’s not worth it. Not only will results be tougher but it won’t be fun either, and you need to have fun with it!
Dara – Colin – thanks for clarifying. I agree it’s different depending on the kind of workout you are doing, weights or cardio.
JC: Having just recently written an article on meal frequency, I will spare the full details on my thoughts and agree with Colin, and that is to say, as long as you get all of your macros in, you are good to go. 3 meals, 5 meals, 8 meals, small meals, big meals – your choice. However, as I mentioned in my article, meal frequency is not the same as nutrient timing.
Colin, you say you eat fewer but larger meals when bulking and smaller more frequent meals when cutting. If the final count is the same at the end of the day, there should be no difference, as you have already mentioned. Since you also agree that meal frequency does not play a role in the overall goal, I wonder why you make this distinction. Also, I don’t agree with the no carbs at breakfast. I think you may have the wrong idea about carbs, and may unnecessarily fear them. Carbs are not the devil they have been made out to be. They can be harmful when not used properly. With the exception of post workout, if I were to limit myself to a time when carbs were acceptable, meal one would be it, for the very reason you avoid it. That is similar to saying that carbs before bed is a big no-no.
For those of you that believe carbs before bed will make you fat, answer these questions:
Does your metabolism turn off when you sleep?
When does your body rebuild itself?
What happens to growth hormone levels when you sleep?
What does your body need to grow?
I typically take a low carb approach to my diet all year round, but I have seen guys come in absolutely shredded on 200-300g carbs a day through prep. I prefer to save carbs for post workout and refeeds. As I said in an earlier writing, refeeds make dieting fun and they give me something to look forward to. I actually enjoy low carb eating, post workout carbs, and then one carb day a week. Reference my earlier article on refeeding and how this dieting style influence leptin levels and body weight.
To start answering the question, to gain muscle you want to operate in a caloric surplus. Matt just wrote an interesting article on this, but I’m not here to discuss how to calculate your macro needs. Once you have determined your macro count, it is all about meeting it. Remember, IIFYM is fun, but there is no denying it can lead to horrible nutrition choices. A pop tart may fit your macros, but do the carbs in a pop tart have the heart healthy and cholesterol lowering properties of oatmeal? Moderation is key. Still have a great physique since my November show and I indulge in a treat here and there.
Preworkout nutrition in my opinion should always be high protein, moderate fat, low carb. Eating a protein rich meal about an hour before the workout will have you pumped with aminos ready to take on the training. Keeping the fat below 10g is recommended since fat slows digestion. Pre-workout carbs are great for energy, but to avoid testosterone drops and insulin responses I prefer to backload. If fat loss is not the goal, I sometimes consume 30g of low GI carbs about an hour before my workout.
I cannot remember a time when I did not workout with intra BCAAs. Many will argue they are not necessary, and I suppose they would be right. After all, a good protein meal before your workout will provide you with all of the aminos you need. I like them because I feel like I train better when I take them. What I like about them the most is that they come in the proven ratios, taking the guess-work out of nutrition and priming you for the best results. I strongly suggest intra BCAAs – they definitely can’t hurt. Top Secret has a great one, Hyperblend Energy (has caffeine).
Post workout nutrition is my favorite. I bring in carbs to replenish glycogen, and I try to have a mix of high and low GI carbs. Many popular carb drinks will have a combo of maltodextrin and dextrose. Maltodextrin is a complex carb but it burns fast like a simple sugar. Dextrose is a natural sugar that your body can utilize far greater than regular table sugar. The two in equal amounts are recommended post workout and are always found in carb drinks. I used to take these but I do not enjoy drinking meals. My postworkout meal is usually oats, whey, and some fruit. This carb plan is one that I utilize for bulking and cutting. The only thing that changes is portion size. Similar to preworkout, I keep fat under 10g for postworkout. Matt, it would appear we have the same idea here.
So, to sum this up to answer the question:
Weight gain = operate on a surplus rich in good protein and fat. Carbs can be taken any time of the day to meet needs, however, low GI is recommended for the majority. Morning and post workout are the most beneficial times in my opinion.
Weight loss = operate on a deficit rich in good protein and fat. Carbs can be taken any time of the day to meet needs, however, low GI is recommended for the majority. Morning and post workout are the most beneficial times in my opinion.
Hmm – the same answer twice….interesting.
Colin: JC, I thought I covered this so I apologize if I wasn’t clear. The reason I say I like larger meals when bulking and smaller more frequent meals when cutting is strictly for appetite reasons, and this is a personal preference. When I’m bulking I have a hard time eating the amount of food necessary when it’s spread out. I feel like I’m eating all the time and I don’t like it. If I eat a few big meals it’s much easier for me. Eat big, let it settle, eat again. On the contrary when cutting and calories are much lower I’m hungrier much more often, and the frequent meals keep my hunger at bay. I definitely agree for the bottom line it doesn’t matter when you eat, but personally it’s a more enjoyable experience when I do it this way.
As for carbs before bed, I definitely agree it’s not a problem at all. Going off memory only I think I touched on that in part 2 of my carb-backloading series. I’m with you that I think making the majority of your carbs come post-workout and the rest of the day being low carb is best for fat loss. It’s interesting that you say eating carbs in the morning. If you were to do them any other time than post-workout, would be your choice because of insulin sensitivity? I’m wondering if you could touch on that a bit more because I’m very curious about it. I would think if you are insulin sensitive in the morning that’s when you’d want to avoid it, when it comes to fat loss. When it comes to building muscle that’s a totally different story. When it comes to muscle-building I agree carbs spread throughout the day is best, but still like to be careful with carbs pre-workout.
JC: I’m not understanding the point you are trying to make. If you see post workout carbs as being helpful, how can you not see morning carbs as beneficial? After a night of fasting insulin sensitivity is high. It is also high post workout. I view waking from a full night’s rest as a post workout moment. You have gone all night without nutrients, your body has been building and repairing. You are starved. A complete breakfast with carbohydrates has been shown to sharpen the mind and prep the body for another day of work. Some people will argue that morning carbs are more muscle sparing than post workout carbs. In fact, on my off days I take my carbs at breakfast. The main thing to keep in mind is that it is not so much how many carbs you eat, but the kinds of carbs you eat. Everything has a place.
Colin: That’s a very interesting point you make about viewing a full night’s rest as a post workout moment. The reason I see post workout carbs as good is because you have broken down your muscles and they are primed for glucose uptake making most of if not all the carbs you consume go directly to muscle tissue leaving nothing left for fat cells. I’m not convinced that to be true after a full night’s rest, but at the same time I can’t say either way without doing some more research. I’m wondering though, if you view the morning as a post workout moment and you see post workout as the key time to take in carbs, how come you usually don’t consume carbs in the morning then?
JC: I take carbs in the morning but I don’t consider it a “carb? meal. The byproduct carbs from my whey, peanut butter, and yogurt all add up. Combined with the fruit I eat at breakfast, on a normal day range from 30—45g carbs at breakfast. I take more of an exchange approach, and this is how I advise a lot of the people I help. For any given meal choose a fat, protein, and carb. In this plan, carbs are for post workout only or breakfast if not working out. This might sound harsh, but read on.
Since it is an exchange program, I do not count the byproduct macros. For example, peanut butter is used as a fat but also contains protein and carbs. I don’t count those. I also recommended vegetables (unlimited greens) and two servings of fruit per day. To sweeten the deal, the macros of these items do not count. They are considered non-negotiable staples.
So technically speaking, the carbs in my breakfast don’t count and on paper go down as a zero.
Colin: Very interesting, and I actually like it. I’m in a sense kind of the same way when I’m low carb. I eat a lot of natural peanut butter, all the green veggies I want, avocados, nuts, one serving of some sort of berry, etc. While I use an app to track all my macros they are technically “counted” but I don’t care if I go over from those sources.
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