When to Eat What…Nutrient Timing Just Isn’t All That Important

protein shakeI read with great relief earlier this week that nutrient timing just doesn’t matter all that much.  Nutrient timing is that approach that says you should eat certain things at certain times.  For example, the whole carb-loading thing before a marathon. Or the thing about having that protein smoothie within 30 minutes after the end of your workout. That’s nutrient timing.

Chronic dieters have heard different, perhaps milder versions of it with all sorts of diet imperatives:  Don’t eat after 7 p.m.!  Never skip breakfast! Don’t eat between meals!  Eat something every two hours! (hey, I never said the message was always consistent).

My main approach to food is what’s called “intuitive eating.” I pay attention to my hunger signals and do my best to respond to them when I’m hungry. I eat what I like. I stop when I feel satisfied (lately, following the latest habit in the Lean Eating Program, I’m aiming for 80% full as my limit).  That’s not compatible with the idea of carefully timing when and what you eat.  That’s why I was relieved to read that most of us can live without nutrient timing.

Brian St. Pierre posted “Is Nutrient Timing Dead?” on the Precision Nutrition website. It’s an indepth look at the various trends and claims surrounding nutrient timing.  He defines it like this: “Nutrient timing simply means eating specific nutrients (such as protein or carbs)… in specific amounts… at specific times (such as before, during, or after exercise).”

And the bottom line is that he’s found that, despite the early studies that supported some basic claims about nutrient timing (e.g. that post workout meals should be higher in fast-digesting carbs like starchy foods and fruit and that other meals should be lower in these things), further research hasn’t corroborated those results.  So his current position on nutrient timing is:

Based on the current body of research, and PN’s experience with over 20,000 clients, I’ve come to realize that nutrient timing isn’t particularly important for most people trying to look and feel better.  

Let me be clear: no, I don’t think nutrient timing is dead, worthless, whatever. In certain situations it’s probably really important. (We’ll explore them below.)

However, lots of really smart and hard working people are getting lost in the finer points of nutrient timing, while consistently missing out on sleep, or vegetables, or other — more important — health and lifestyle factors. And that’s a shame.

I understand that we want to maximize our workouts and that timing our nutrient intake might seem like a sensible way to do that if the research shows it works. But for me, nutrient timing in a strict sense has always been yet another way to obsess about food and whether I’m “getting it right.”

St. Pierre’s article is a good read. He talks about the “anabolic window of opportunity” that prompts so many gym rats to rush to the locker room for that protein drink.  He considers too the idea of meal-scheduling and meal frequency. He takes on that fundamental piece of dietary advice: breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so don’t skip it!

It turns out that breakfast works for some of us, but for others, it’s no benefit at all:

For example:

  • Folks with Type 2 diabetes did better when they skipped breakfast altogether and ate a larger lunch.
  • Other folks who were told to skip breakfast ended up eating less overall compared to breakfast eaters.
  • And skipping breakfast was found to be just as effective as eating breakfast for weight loss.

So, will skipping breakfast be better for you?

Maybe yes. Maybe no.

Preliminary evidence suggests that skipping breakfast can:

  • increase fat breakdown;
  • increase the release of growth hormone (which has anti-aging and fat loss benefits);
  • improve blood glucose control;
  • improve cardiovascular function; and/or
  • decrease food intake.

However, the truth is, most of this research has been done in animals, with only a few conclusive human studies.

The main message behind the post is that there’s no one way that works for everyone.

He concludes that nutrient timing might matter for some people. If you’re an elite or professional athlete, or a weight-class athlete, you may need to think about it. If you workout more than once a day, you might want to time your eating so that you’re not depleted for that second workout.  But saving that, it’s not all that important.

It matters much more to focus on “your nutritional hierarchy of importance”:

  1. How much are you eating?
    (Recommendation: Eat until satisfied, instead of stuffed, follow PN’s Calorie Control Guide .)
  2. How you are eating?
    (Recommendation: Eat slowly and mindfully, without distraction.)
  3. Why are you eating?
    (Hungry, bored, stressed, following peer pressure, social cues, triggered by hyper-rewarding foods?)
  4. What are you eating?
    (Recommendation: Minimally processed proteins, veggies, fruits, healthy starches, and healthy fats.)
  5. Are you doing #1 to #4 properly, consistently?
    (Recommendation: Shoot for 80% consistency with these items before moving on.)

And only then consider…

  1. When are you eating?
    (Now you can consider breakfast, late-night, during your workout, etc.)

For more on nutrient timing, check out the whole article.  Me? I’m starting to feel hungry now. I think I’ll go eat something.

3 thoughts on “When to Eat What…Nutrient Timing Just Isn’t All That Important

  1. I would think that the manner in which one exercises influences not just what and how much to eat, but also when to eat. I really only know what I’ve been told though. Eat an apple before working out so your glucogen stores are not easily depleted, and eat protein afterward to help repair muscles. There 2 things were said to me by a bodybuilder.

  2. I was just writing about this to an extent the other day with Mindful Eating. I’m the type of person that HAS to eat breakfast now. I used to be able to skip it, but now I find that I lack focus and energy if I go from dinner to lunch without supplying my body. I’m also a late morning exerciser so that probably has a lot to do with it. I don’t know if it’s so much the type of nutrients that you eat before you workout or supplying x at a certain time of day, but I still believe that you need a little something in there to keep your brain functioning alongside the body.

  3. Great post Tracy! Your comment about “getting it right” really resonated with me. Such a powerful notion to just let go of. Seeking the “right” way takes us further out of listening to our own bodies and what is right for each of us, right now.

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