At its foundation, nutrient timing is the idea that certain macro nutrients are better utilized by the body at certain times (specifically in relation to exercise.) That means if we want to optimize our body comp and performance (and who doesn’t?), what we consume around our workout is important. But we have to be careful. Like all matters of the metabolism, we have to get the big picture right before we focus on the details. For rockstar health, nutrient timing absolutely matters, but we can think of it as the final expression of a kick-ass nutrition plan, the last leg of our food journey, the end game of our meal methodology, the coup de grâce of our- okay that’s enough. So if nutrient timing is at the tip of the pyramid, what’s at the base?
When it comes to nutrition, our first and most primary concern should be what we’re eating. In other words, initially, we should focus more on the nutrients and less on the timing.
Eat food, not too much, mostly vegetables.
– Michael Pollan
Vegetables are basically the raddest things we can consume. These natural, from-the-earth superfoods are nutrient dense and calorie poor, which means we give our body a lot of love without the love handles. For gagillions of years, humans have evolved to run off of these lil’ vitamin and mineral power packets. So eat them. Better yet – enjoy them. GEEK OUT about them. Make some carrot fries, roast some brussels sprouts, grill some zucchini, sauté some squash. Get to know how powerful and effective herbs and spices can be. Have you ever tried cumin and cauliflower, basil and tomato, thyme and carrots, rosemary and pretty much anything?
Now obviously vegetables aren’t the only thing we need to consume, BUT simply adding two fists of vegetables every time you eat will go a long way towards improving your relationship with food.
Step 2) How Much Should I Eat?
If food quality is our first concern (what we eat), food quantity is our next mission. The beauty of quality food choices is that our food quantity starts to work itself out. The body has a remarkable ability to balance its energy influx (and hormones) when you feed it natural, minimally processed food (it’s the heavily processed stuff that throws us outta whack.) That said, it’s nice to have a gauge of how much we’re consuming so we can make adjustments based on progress.
How should we measure how much we’re eating?
Understanding calories is cool. Counting them on reg is not. It reduces food to a math equation and is a very inexact science (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one.) Plus, most awesome foods don’t come with nutrition labels so we’re left guestimating. Instead of the calorie hustle, I prefer to use my hand as a gauge. It’s simple, it’s accurate, and I’ve never left home without it (was that a dad joke? Damnit, I’m pretty sure that qualifies as a dad joke.)
If you’re interested in losing weight, a good starting point for women is 1 palm* of protein, 2 fists of vegetables, and 2 thumbs of fat at every meal. *A palm is the width and thickness of your actual palm (not your entire hand.)
If you’re interested in losing weight, a good starting point for men is 1.5-2 palms of protein, 2 fists of vegetables, and 3 thumbs of fat at every meal.
These are starting points. Once you’ve established a baseline, you can make adjustments from there. For example, if you’re a dude and you start with 2, 2, & 3, and you’d like to increase your rate of weight loss, go to 2, 2, & 2 (thumbs of fat) per meal. Give it two weeks and you’ll start to notice to scales tipping in your favor. Boom. Progress.
Step 3) How Often Should I Eat?
Meal frequency is a tricky topic. It was not that long about that the blanket suggestion from all nutritionist used to be, “Eat 6 small servings per day to stoke the fire and keep your metabolism primed.” Then intermitted fasting came along and turned that suggestion on its head:
“Don’t eat for 12 hours.”
“Don’t eat for 16 hours.”
“Don’t eat for 24 hours.”
Here’s the reality: intermittent fasting works very well for some people and very poorly for others. Eating 6 small meals per day works very well for some people and very poorly for others. Most people fall somewhere in the middle of the two extremes (because that’s how statistics work.) With the principles of bio-individuality at play, different meal frequencies work very well for some people and very poorly for others. That means a strong dose of self-experimentation is required.
Don’t confuse nutrient timing with meal frequency. Meal frequency is when we eat meals. Nutrient timing is when we eat macro nutrients in relation to exercise. There’s obviously some overlap, but they’re different nutrition concepts.
MIX IT UP…IT’S FUN!
If you’re new to healthy eating or you’ve had a troubled relationship with food in the past, stick with balanced and consistent meal frequency (every 3-4 hours.) You can make some incredible progress AND it’ll give you someplace to go down the road. If you’ve got a whacky schedule or you’re looking for some more aggressive weight loss options, get a little more extreme with your meal frequency. Low level fasting protocols are a great place to start. Try making your first meal an early lunch – so you’re not eating anything until noon (for example.) You effectively close the window in which you consume food, ergo you consume less food. Plus, your hunger hormones can be trained (like anything else.) The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Only after we get the big stuff right can we begin to focus on the fun, awesome, science-y details of nutrition, like nutrient timing. So first focus on quality food choices, then focus on portions, then figure out a meal frequency plan that works well for you. With that in the bag, your nutrition is in an excellent place. Then, and only then, can you start to experiment with the timing of specific macronutrients.
Step 4) Nutrient Timing
The goal is to move the bulk of your carbs to your post workout window. Yes, that means no carbs before your workout. Start by adding a handful of carbs (woman) or 2 handfuls of carbs (men) to your first meal post workout. Fruit, rice, or potatoes are all excellent options. The goal is to replenish hungry muscles when your body is most receptive to an influx of fuel. Your first post workout meal is a nice starting point, then again, make adjustments from there. This stuff is fun because it’s an ongoing experiment in badassery. Adjust your eating plan and see how your body adapts.
Moral of the story: don’t put the carb before the horse (knee slap.) Get the big stuff right then start to pay attention to the details. Don’t get OCD about food because that shit ain’t healthy. That’s the nuts and blots of nutrient timing. Go get ‘em slugger.