By Jenna Corbin, MS, RD, LD, CSSD, CLT, PES, CES
“It’s best to eat three square meals a day. No, six smaller, more frequent meals are the way to go.”
“Don’t bother working out if you don’t have a pre-workout snack.”
“Have your protein powder-shaker cup packed in your gym bag so precious muscle is not lost after a workout.”
Is there any truth to these statements regarding nutrient timing for performance, health and body composition? Does it matter when we eat specific nutrients throughout the day and around our exercise or training? “Nutrient timing” refers to eating specific nutrients (whether in a full meal or individual proteins, carbohydrates or fats) throughout the day or peri-workout (before, during or after exercise). Despite what the proponents of one camp or another may say, and contrary to the “hard facts” and “set-in-stone” recommendations some may make, there is still much to learn about nutrient timing in regards to specifically what, how much to have and also when to have it. Recent literature, as well as experience in the field, provides us with some current practical guidance.
Daily Meal Timing
Some research suggests that it is better (from a body composition, performance and/or overall health standpoint) to eat smaller meals more frequently. Others suggested that instead fewer, bigger meals are just as good, if not better. Likewise, some research points to bigger morning meals as more beneficial than more substantial evening meals and vice versa. Breakfast seems to be important for some people but maybe others don’t necessarily need to eat breakfast to obtain desired results. There really is no definitive evidence showing a certain benefit over one or the other. The take away? Look at the bigger picture first! There is no one-size-fits-all best approach! The answer is rather simple, we are all unique! Moreover, there are some other considerations to be made before worrying too much about the specific timing of meals.
- Consider “why” (hunger vs. emotions, social reasons and pressure) and “how” (mindfully and present vs. distracted and rushed) eating is occurring. Pay attention to how much is being eaten; be aware of portions, listening to hunger and fullness cues.
- Pay attention to what is being consumed; focus on nutrient-dense, minimally processed foods such as lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, healthy fats and starches.
- Strive for consistency with this more well-rounded approach and then consider when to eat.
Nutrient Timing Meals Around Training
In simpler terms, nutrient timing is meal timing. Essentially, peri-workout nutrient timing needs to be considered in the context of the bigger picture as well. Nutrient timing may be beneficial, or it may add unnecessary stress, complexity and distraction. How much emphasis that should be given to nutrient timing depends on one’s individual goals and training habits. For the general population, someone just looking to improve or maintain health and fitness, specific attention to nutrient timing around training may not be necessary. Working on the considerations and suggestions in the section above will likely be enough. If doing this, a balanced meal is likely being consumed within a few hours before and after exercise, and that should be sufficient. In fact, intentionally timing exercise around a meal is a wise strategy. Some individuals that may benefit from specific meals and nutrient timing are elite athletes and exercisers, those with training sessions and/or competitions that may be especially intense or those whose physical activity exceeds two hours or have multiple activity bouts in a day. For these individuals, increasing meal frequency and paying attention to pre-, during-, and post-workout nutrition may help with performance, body composition and overall health. In this case, nutrient timing can help ensure that the adequate amount of calories and nutrients are being provided to meet demands while also giving specific nutrients at times when they will be utilized best for optimal body composition, performance and recovery. The types of food and when they are eaten can positively impact performance and recovery by helping to hydrate, maintain energy, preserve muscle mass and speed recovery. Whatever the case may be, having a plan is better than nothing, which can result in haphazard eating. Most importantly, eating adequate calories, as well as macronutrients (i.e., proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrients (i.e., vitamins, minerals and other functional food constituents) with a unique, individualized approach should be the focus.
Putting It into Practice
After digesting and absorbing all of this (pun intended), if nutrient timing is something that interests you and you feel like trying it out, here are some guidelines to start with:
- Keep in mind that specific recommendations for nutrient intake, especially carbohydrates and protein around training, depend on various factors that include timing of the last meal, one’s own individual genetics as well as fitness level and the goals one wishes to obtain from their training type, intensity and exercise duration.
- Eating protein and carbohydrates before exercise can help fuel training, maintain fuel stores and muscle mass and promote recovery.
- Healthy fats are important in a daily eating plan and will likely be included in the protein and carbohydrate foods consumed. Paying particular attention to how much fat you are eating before and after exercise is not necessarily at the top of the priority list. The exception is during activity, where minimizing intake (and thus, how hard the body has to work to digest) is likely the way to go.
If it’s at least a few hours prior to activity, try for 1-2 palms (of the hand) of protein (~20-40g) and 1-2 fists of carbohydrate (~30-60g) depending on body size and the specific activity. With less time (an hour or less), it is recommended to stick with less (about half the amount) and foods that are easier to digest; think liquids and/or semi-solids. In all cases, try different options on non-critical days to see what works best for you. Nutrition “during” activity is really only important in certain situations (see below), although maintaining hydration (with water and/or electrolyte-replacement drinks) should be the main focus in all situations. Carbohydrates and proteins during training are especially helpful for overall performance, training adaptations and recovery if:
- It has been less than three hours since the last meal.
- The training is long (more than two hours) or intense and/or multiple daily training sessions are planned.
- If gaining muscle mass is a goal.
About 30-60g carbohydrate/hour and 15g protein/hour is recommended (in liquid and/or solid form, depending on individual tolerance). The goal of post-workout nutrition is to refuel, rehydrate, and recover in order to maintain/build muscle mass and improve subsequent performance. While getting in carbohydrates, protein and fluid sooner than later is a good idea (especially if training was done in a fasted state, or with minimal pre-exercise nutrition), it has been shown that there is a 1-2 hour window of time to allow for optimal refueling. Either a protein shake/smoothie or a balanced meal will do, again, based on personal preference and available time. Aim for at least 1-2 palms of protein, 1-2 fists of carbohydrates and 1-2 thumbs of fat.
Wrapping It Up
So in the end, for most individuals, as long as the right foods are eaten in the right amounts for the right reasons (based on training and overall needs and listening to hunger and fullness cues), how often and exactly when one should eat is likely based on personal preference. Nutrient timing should be considered around training/exercise in appropriate instances, and monitoring whether or not a particular nutrition plan is helping one reach overall goals for health, performance and/or body composition is a must. Trust the evidence of each unique body. Take evidence based guidance: experiment, monitor, adjust and adapt and ultimately an individualized, effective nutrition plan can be achieved. Use nutrient timing as one tool in the toolbox, in the correct way, for the appropriate situation. Jenna has an undergraduate degree in Foods & Nutrition and a Master’s degree in Human Movement. She is a Registered/Licensed Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. She has experience working with a variety of individuals from children to professional athletes.
Aragon, Alan and Schoenfeld, Brad. “Nutrient timing revisited: Is there a post-exercise anabolic window?” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10, no. 5 (2013): 1-11.
Brown, Andrew, Bohan Brown, Michelle, and Allison, David. “Belief beyond the evidence: using the proposed effect of breakfast on obesity to show two practices that distort scientific evidence.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 98, no. 5 (2013): 1298-1308
Ivy, John and Portman, Robert. Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition. New Jersey: Basic Health Publications, 2004.
Jeukendrup, Asker. “A Step Towards Personalized Sports Nutrition: Carbohydrate Intake During Exercise.” Sports Medicine, 44, Suppl. 1 (2014): S25–S33.
Kerksick, Chad et al. “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Nutrient Timing.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 5, no. 17 (2008).
La Bounty, Paul et al. “International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Meal Frequency.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 8, no. 4 (2011).
Schoenfeld, Brad, Aragon, Aaron, Krieger, James. “The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: A meta analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10, no. 53 (2013).