Nutrient Timing in Bodybuilding

What & When to Eat for Optimal Fat Loss and Muscle Gain

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: April 14, 2024

As a bodybuilding nutrition coach, one of my clients’ most common questions is, “When should I eat?” Even if they’re not familiar with the concept of nutrient timing, they intuitively understand time matters.

In this article, I’ll explain why nutrient timing matters and show you what and when to eat for weight loss and muscle gain.

Bodybuilding Nutrient Timing

What is Nutrient Timing?

Nutrient timing involves eating at specific times based on your daily sleep and resistance training schedule. The primary goal is to improve progress in the gym while building muscle mass and burning fat.

Moreover, nutrient timing involves careful planning of food quality, quantity, and macronutrient composition. So it’s more than just eating meals at certain times.

Meal timing + Meal Composition = Nutrient Timing

Does Nutrient Timing Matter?

When it comes to nutrition, nutrient timing is just one aspect to consider. It’s important to note that calorie balance, total daily protein intake, and eating the right foods generally have a more significant impact on your diet than meal timing.

Therefore, before worrying about nutrient timing, it’s crucial to establish a balanced diet foundation. Once you have achieved this, nutrient timing can be a helpful tool to enhance your progress.

I created this bodybuilding nutrition pyramid to illustrate the significance of nutrient timing relative to other aspects of your diet. It’s important to note that nutrient timing can overlap with macros and food choices.

Does Nutrient Timing Matter

Effect of Nutrient Timing

Understanding that natural processes are cyclical and have distinct phases is essential. Seasons change, tides rise and fall, and so on, demonstrating this balance.

Similarly, our bodies also have their circadian rhythm of stress and recovery. Naturally, you can’t be stressed out and relaxed at the same time. So, you swing between the two states like a pendulum.

It’s worth noting that eating habits can impact this balance. The hormones released by our body in response to our eating habits can affect fat loss, muscle gain, and body recomposition.

Additionally, meal timing plays a crucial role, especially when coordinated with periods of stress and relaxation (such as resistance exercise and sleep).

nutrient timing and nervous system

7 Proven Benefits of Nutrient Timing

​So far, I’ve been discussing generalities and qualitative terms. Now, I will switch gears and discuss the measurable quantitative effects of meal timing. Here are the scientifically established benefits of nutrient timing.

1. Improve Exercise Performance

Anaerobic activities, such as strength training, mainly rely on the glycolytic energy system. In other words, your body tends to use carbohydrates as an energy source when you need to produce short bursts of power.

Most of you are familiar with “carbing up” before a big sports event or grueling workout. Additionally, current research shows that consuming carbohydrates before working out can increase power output1.

2. Enhance Recovery Process

The physical stress of a training session elevates catabolic hormones like cortisol, which can lead to muscle breakdown. However, carbohydrate intake before and during workouts keeps cortisol levels lower.

According to recent research by the University of Texas, lower cortisol during workouts reduces muscle damage and allows faster recovery2. Carbs also improve recovery by replenishing muscle glycogen stores.

3. Swing the Hormone Pendulum

As you’ve seen, intense workouts are inherently catabolic. But we want our bodies in an anabolic state to build and maintain muscle mass, and post-workout nutrition can help.

The anabolic window is the post-workout period when nutrition can shift your body from catabolic to anabolic. This process relies primarily on a hormone called insulin.

The best way to increase insulin is with a meal containing carbs and protein.

Nutrient Timing Post-Workout Meal

Adapted from Zawadzki et al.3

4. Reduce Inflammation

Physical stress from vigorous training can generate harmful free radicals and inflammation. However, a proper nutrition plan can help reduce immune system suppression and improve overall health.

A collaborative study conducted by Iowa State, Vanderbilt University, and the U.S. Marines examined the health of soldiers undergoing stress. The results showed that consumption of protein and carbohydrates after workouts led to 33% fewer medical visits4.

5. Increase Muscle Growth

Several studies have confirmed that taking specific nutrients before and after exercising can increase muscle hypertrophy5,6.

One study conducted by Victoria University compared two groups of bodybuilders who consumed protein and carb shakes. The first group took the shake immediately before and after their workouts, while the second group took it in the morning and evening. During the study, both groups maintained constant calorie intake and macro ratios.

After ten weeks, it was found that consuming protein and carbohydrates around workouts resulted in significantly greater lean mass gain than the group that took the shake in the morning and evening7.

nutrient timing body composition

Adapted from Cribb and Hayes

6. Boost Fat Burning

In addition to building muscle, nutrient timing can also aid in fat burning. The study conducted by Victoria University found that consuming a combination of protein and carbohydrates around the time of a workout reduced overall body fat.

However, consuming carbohydrates outside this time frame increased body fat, most likely due to elevated insulin for more of the day.

7. Promote Metabolic Flexibility

Nutrient timing has a final benefit: metabolic flexibility. This term refers to the body’s ability to switch between carbohydrates and fat as energy sources.

Daily cycles of high-carb/low-fat and low-carb/high-fat meals promote insulin sensitivity, enabling the body to burn both carbohydrates and fats more efficiently.

nutrient timing

Nutrient Timing for Bodybuilding

The benefits of nutrient timing are clear, but you still need to focus on applying it correctly in your daily meal plan. So here are some actionable tips regarding carbohydrate and protein timing.

  • Pre-Workout: Consuming complex carbohydrates and protein 30-60 minutes before training provides an immediate energy source and prevents muscle breakdown.
  • Intra-Workout: If you have intense training sessions or train for more than 60 minutes, it can be beneficial to consume simple carbs during your workout. Adding a few grams of EAAs can also help prevent muscle breakdown.
  • Post-Workout: Within 90 minutes after training, a mixture of high-glycemic carbohydrates and whey protein is ideal for increasing muscle protein synthesis.
  • Rest of the Day: Small meals containing 20-40 grams of protein every 2-3 hours helps maintain muscle protein synthesis8.

For muscle gain, meals outside the workout window can also contain carbohydrates. However, consuming carbs throughout the day causes insulin levels to remain elevated, which can lead to fat storage and insulin resistance.

Therefore, I typically recommend that you consume roughly 2/3 of your daily carbohydrates within a shorter time frame around your workout. For the rest of your meals, focus on protein and healthy fats. This is especially effective for weight loss.

metabolic confusion meal plan

Personalized Meal Timing Plan

See exactly what and when to eat based on your schedule and fitness goals. Including recipes formulated to fit your macros – no counting or tracking required!

Nutrient Timing Book

Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition was published in 2004 by John Ivy and Robert Portman. I have read this book multiple times while studying nutrition for bodybuilding.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book on Amazon or at your local bookstore.

Nutrient Timing Book

Resources
1) Haff, G. Gregory, et al. “Carbohydrate supplementation and resistance training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17.1 (2003): 187-196.
2) Baty, Jacob J., et al. “The effect of a carbohydrate and protein supplement on resistance exercise performance, hormonal response, and muscle damage.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 21.2 (2007): 321-329.
3) Zawadzki, K. M., B. B. Yaspelkis 3rd, and J. L. Ivy. “Carbohydrate-protein complex increases the rate of muscle glycogen storage after exercise.” Journal of Applied Physiology 72.5 (1992): 1854-1859.
4) Flakoll, Paul J., et al. “Postexercise protein supplementation improves health and muscle soreness during basic military training in Marine recruits.” Journal of Applied Physiology 96.3 (2004): 951-956.
5) Willoughby, D. S., J. R. Stout, and C. D. Wilborn. “Effects of resistance training and protein plus amino acid supplementation on muscle anabolism, mass, and strength.” Amino acids 32.4 (2007): 467-477.
6) Esmarck, Birgitte, et al. “Timing of postexercise protein intake is important for muscle hypertrophy with resistance training in elderly humans.” The Journal of physiology 535.1 (2001): 301-311.
7) Cribb, Paul J., and Alan Hayes. “Effects of supplement timing and resistance exercise on skeletal muscle hypertrophy.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 38.11 (2006): 1918-1925.
8) Kerksick, Chad M., et al. “International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: nutrient timing.” Journal of the international society of sports nutrition 14.1 (2017): 33.

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