Nutrient Timing: Why “When” You Eat Matters

How meal timing affects fat loss and muscle gain.

One of the most common meal planning questions is “when should I eat?”

In this article, I’m taking on the controversial subject of nutrient timing. And I’ll explain the science behind when to eat for fat loss and muscle gain.

nutrient timing

What is Nutrient Timing?

Before we get into specifics, let me make sure you’re up to speed on what nutrient timing is.

Nutrient timing is coordinating your meals around your daily sleep and activity cycle. Usually, with the goal of losing fat or gaining muscle.

Does Nutrient Timing Matter?

Think of nutrient timing as one piece of the nutrition puzzle. Other pieces such as calorie intake, food choices, and macros are all more important than meal timing.

However, when other factors are held constant, nutrient timing provides an edge.

The Physical Effects of Nutrient Timing

It’s important to realize that natural processes are cyclical. Seasons change, tides rise and fall, and so on. For every negative, there is a positive.

This balance is present in our bodies as well. For example, stress is negative while resting is positive.

Of course, you can’t be both stressed out and relaxed at the same time. So you swing between the two states like a pendulum.

What’s interesting is that eating (or not eating) can swing the pendulum. And our eating habits release key hormones that impact fat loss and muscle gain.

Moreover, the effect of meal timing is amplified when coordinated with periods of stress and relaxation (such as workouts and sleep).

nutrient timing and nervous system

7 Proven Benefits of Nutrient Timing

1. Improve Performance

Anaerobic activities like weightlifting predominantly use the glycolytic energy system. In other words, your body prefers to use carbs for energy when you need to generate short burst of power.

Furthermore, studies show that eating carbs before workouts leads to greater power output1.

2. Enhance Recovery

All that physical stress elicits an adaptation response – resulting in bigger and stronger muscles.

Unfortunately, intense workouts also cause hormonal stress. When catabolic hormones like cortisol get too high, muscle breaks down.

However, eating carbohydrates before and/or during workouts keeps cortisol levels lower according to a study by the University of Texas. Lower cortisol reduces muscle damage and allows faster recovery2.

3. Swing the Hormone Pendulum

Perhaps most important is to counteract the negative effects of cortisol after workouts. And the best way to do this is to increase insulin with a meal containing carbs and protein.


nutrient timing post workout meal

Adapted from Zawadzki et al.3

4. Reduce Inflammation

Another byproduct of stress is damaging free radicals and inflammation. But nutritional intervention can significantly reduce immune system suppression, thereby improving overall health.

A joint study from Iowa State, Vanderbilt University, and the U.S. Marines assessed the health of soldiers under stress. Interestingly, protein and carbs after workouts resulted in 33% fewer medical visits4.

5. Increase Muscle Gain

Multiple studies confirm that specific nutrients before and after training increases muscle hypertrophy5,6.

A Victoria University study compared two groups of bodybuilders that consumed protein/carb shakes. One group took the shake immediately before and after workouts. While the other group took it in the morning and evening.

During the study, calorie intake and macro ratios were held constant. After 10 weeks, consuming protein/carbs around workouts resulted in significantly more lean mass gain7.

nutrient timing body composition

Adapted from Cribb and Hayes

6. Boost Fat Burning

In addition to muscle gain, nutrient timing burns fat. The Victoria University study shows that protein and carbs around the workout reduced body fat. While carbs consumed away from the workout increased body fat!

To explain, when you eat carbs all day long your insulin levels stay elevated. And that means your body is more likely to store fat.

Therefore, it’s beneficial to consume most of your daily carbs within a shorter window around your workout. Then, the rest of your meals should consist of protein and fat.

7. Promote Metabolic Flexibility

A final benefit of nutrient timing is metabolic flexibility. Or the ability to switch between carbs and fat as an energy source.

Daily cycles of high-carb/low-fat and low-carb/high-fat meals promotes insulin sensitivity. So you burn both carbs and fat more efficiently.


Nutrient Timing Q&A

Click the question to reveal the answer.

The short answer is no. However, that doesn’t mean you should skip it altogether.

Breakfast is important in the sense that it breaks the overnight fast. And it’s a chance to give your body nutrients to set the stage for fat loss and muscle gain.

Although, what you eat for breakfast depends entirely on your fitness goal and your daily schedule.

5 Easy Morning Meals for Fat Loss & Muscle Gain

It’s almost always beneficial to eat something before you workout. However, what you eat depends on your fitness goal.

When your goal is muscle gain, it’s best to eat a meal with protein and carbs. For fat loss, you should at least get some protein before hitting the gym.

After consuming a hearty meal of carbs and protein, you usually want to wait 1-2 hours before working out. In order to give your body time to break down the carbs so you can use them for energy.

On the other hand, you can workout within 30 minutes if you have a light protein meal or shake.

An intra-workout shake can provide and energy boost while keeping cortisol at bay. And it’s an easy way to get more calories when your goal is muscle gain.

For that I recommend 30-60 grams of high glycemic carbs along with about 5 grams of BCAA’s or EAA’s. As strange as it sounds, my favorite intra-workout drink is fresh pressed apple cider.

Also, if you’re goal is fat loss, you should forego the intra-workout shake in order to promote more fat oxidation.

The “anabolic window” suggests that you have 30-60 minutes after your workout to maximize gains. While there is plenty of data showing carbs and protein at this time enhance glycogen uptake, it’s not always necessary.

In cases where you want to maximize muscle gain, getting your post workout meal or shake within this timeframe is a good idea. However, if you had protein with your pre-workout meal, then it’s not a life or death situation!

Certainly there’s a lot to be said for intermittent fasting – especially for weight loss.

The Pros & Cons of Intermittent Fasting

But when your goal is to build or preserve lean mass, it’s best to eat every 2-3 hours. That means several meals a day, even if some are small snacks or shakes.

In addition, nutrient timing and daily carb cycling helps you get the benefits of intermittent fasting without the drawbacks.

Of course there are negative effects to eating carbs at night. Especially if your eating cookies and ice cream. 😏

Yet, that doesn’t mean carbs at night are always a bad thing. For example, if you workout in the evening, then you should be eating carbs at night!

Busting the Carbs At Night Myth

metabolic confusion meal plan

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