What is Meal Timing?
As a Performance coach, the most common question I get is probably “What should I eat?”, but the second most common would probably be “When should I eat?” directed towards meal timing.
First off, overall daily calories and macros always trump any sort of meal timing. For the average joe who works out 3-5x/ week just trying to stay healthy and in shape, it most likely will not make a huge difference or be as important.
If you do not have your calories, macros, and quality of food choices in check first, timing should not be a concern quite yet for you. However, for the athlete it can be the next dial up into improving recovery and performance!
Meal Timing vs Nutrient Timing
First, to specify the difference between “Meal Timing” and “Nutrient Timing”. “Meal Timing” is when and how often you have a meal around and outside your training window, nothing beyond that. Some people have 3 meals a day, some people have 6 meals a day. From a health and digestive perspective, people will vary in what they prefer here.
“Nutrient Timing” is a little more complex and is about timing certain macronutrients strategically in each meal. Each meal’s breakdown of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, are broken up in a certain amount of meals to intentionally maximize performance and recovery. This is what we want to focus on for the athlete.
Protein Timing and Distribution
The protein distribution literature implies that there are benefits from aiming to get about 3-5 sufficiently sized (≥0.24g/kg) doses of protein throughout the day if you’re interested in absolutely maximizing your performance and recovery.
Optimizing protein distribution is a strategy used designed to improve the efficiency of muscle growth. The most commonly used strategy is consuming protein around resistance training sessions to improve the building and recovering process of muscle tissue. As far as the post workout period goes, the ingestion of 20g of protein is sufficient to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis after exercise.
Another strategic time to focus on would be before bedtime. It is recommended to ingest slow-digesting proteins to prevent the breakdown of muscle during sleep. This and the strategy of evenly spreading protein intake between multiple meals to maximize daily muscle protein synthesis have both gained positive results.
Because of the powerful anabolic effect of insulin (the hormone released from the pancreas after ingesting carbohydrate), and the fact that CHO (carbohydrate) consumption causes the secretion of vastly more insulin than the other macronutrients, the consumption is anabolic to muscle tissue.
SO, CHO grows muscle, especially when amino acids from consumed protein are available as well. CHO will be available in the form of glycogen after going through the digestion process. This is the readily available fuel that our bodies will use for high intensity activities (swinging a golf club!).
In addition to glycogen’s role as a provider of energy for high intensity workouts, its storage in the muscle plays a role in the regulation of muscle protein synthesis (growth). Low levels of glycogen by themselves have been shown to send signals to cells which result in the downregulation of muscle growth.
So, if there are low glycogen levels, even if there is a training stimulus, this can still damper muscle gain and increase the risk of muscle loss. Since dietary carbohydrate is such a dominant determinant of muscle glycogen, having low dietary CHO can have a direct negative impact on muscle growth.
For general health, most carbohydrates should come from veggies, fruits, and fibrous whole grains. However, this can backfire if trying to maximize the timing of our carbohydrate intake. In the window before and after training, it may be in your interest to consider the less fibrous/faster digesting sources such as white potato, white rice, breads, etc.
Pre workout fibrous sources can cause gastric distress in some people, which can really put a damper on performance in the gym. In the post workout period, the fibrous sources may slow absorption minimizing protein synthesis. Ultimately, it will come down to the preference of the athlete, but in the 30 minute to 2 hours window before and after training, fast digestible CHO are highly recommended to improve the muscle protein synthesis.
As far as the consumption of fats is concerned, they should be minimized around that same training window in which we maximize CHO (30min to 2hours). The problem here is that fats can dramatically slow the process of digestion and absorption of protein and carbohydrates, hindering the muscle protein synthesis process.
Since the workout window will be minimal for fats, it is highly recommended that the focus on fat consumption outside of the workout window will be maximized. We still need fats to recover, perform, and LIVE. These fats should mostly come from a monounsaturated source. We will get a fair amount of saturated fats from the animal products we consume, so this will be important alongside.
Monounsaturated fats are your sources such as nuts, nut butters, olive oil, avocado, etc. These sources are actually proven to have a direct effect on lean body mass, and less fat mass. If you are an athlete who prefers a higher fat diet rather than a relatively high CHO diet, continue to focus on the monounsaturated fats as your primary intake!!
- Evenly Distributed Protein Intake over 3 Meals Augments Resistance Exercise–Induced Muscle Hypertrophy in Healthy Young Men. Yasuda et al. (2020)
- Moore DR, Robinson MJ, Fry JL, Tang JE, Glover EI, Wilkinson SB, Prior T, Tarnopolsky MA, Phillips SM. Ingested protein dose response of muscle and albumin protein synthesis after resistance exercise in young men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009 Jan;89(1):161-8. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2008.26401. Epub 2008 Dec 3. PMID: 19056590.
3. Renaissanceperiodization.com. 2021. Renaissance Periodization | The Open Nutrition Tips. [online] Available at: <https://renaissanceperiodization.com/expert-advice/the-open-nutrition-tips>.