Carbohydrate back-loading. Anabolic window. Intermittent fasting. Carbohydrate front-loading. Fasted cardio. Fats for breakfast. Meal spacing. Carbohydrate side-loading. So you have just got your head around macros. You have finally figured out your optimal level of protein intake. And you’ve also figured out that really, you don’t need to be too anal about your carbs and fats and that really, if you like fat, you can have a little more chocolate and alternatively, if you like your carbs (who doesn’t…?), then you can have a little more cereal. Great. Now you start to delve a little deeper in to nutrition and hear all about ‘macro timing’. Did you know that you won’t gain weight if you save all your carbs until post workout a ’la carbohydrate back-loading? *disclaimer, this is untrue, as you will hopefully find out for yourself after finishing this article.* In this article, I hope to help you decide what works for you with ‘macro timing’, and to help you realise that you don’t have to eat 7 meals a day, time carbs around training whilst intermittent fasting, eating fats for breakfast and coconut oil in your coffee, to get the results that you want from your nutrition and training.
We all know (or have been/are) this person. This person happily eats 3 square meals with their family every day for 20 years. This person takes up ‘fitness’. This person subsequently loses all scope of these so-called ‘breakfast’, ‘lunch’ and ‘dinner’ meals, and merely begins to only understand meals 1 through 6. These meals are consumed every 3 hours precisely (excluding the post-workout meal consumed immediately following training, which may or may not take said meal count to 7 – it’s a sad state of affairs when a protein shake becomes a meal). But, is this person crazy? Or is there a rationale for this?
Back in the 2000s (a depressing 10 years or so ago), following the determination of the optimal amount of protein per meal being 20-25g, or 0.25g/kg body weight (the latter being more relevant if you are of a larger stature), one of the coolest research groups in the world (that’s right, research can be cool – it’s all PROTEIN), investigated the effect of different serving sizes and timings of protein (1). They sought to determine if protein feedings spaced equally throughout the day (4 meals of 20g protein) were any different to 8 smaller meals (8 meals of 10g protein) or 2 larger meals (2 meals of 40g protein) in terms of muscle protein synthesis (building and recovery of muscles) after resistance exercise. What they identified was a greater protein synthesis with 4 meals of 20g of protein compared to the other meal patterns, suggesting that 4 meals might be optimal for maintenance or attainment of peak muscle mass.
What about protein after training? Do you need to hit that ‘anabolic window’ before you lose your gains? In short, no, and research is conflicting as to whether protein straight after exercise is actually beneficial for muscle mass. Provided you consume a meal containing 20-25g protein before training, the ‘window’ for consumption after training may be up to a few hours. However, resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis rates and without protein ingestion, protein balance will remain negative (i.e. protein breakdown, not what we want for muscle growth). Therefore, post-exercise protein ingestion is widely accepted as a potential method to maximise potential for muscle recovery and growth. This is more important when you head straight to training without prior meal consumption.
Protein before bed might also be important, and some research has identified an improvement in muscle mass and strength in response to 27g protein at night time as opposed to spread over the rest of the day (2). Further, up to 40g protein pre-bed may improve muscle protein synthesis (3). The problem with this research is that they have lacked a comparison with groups given the same amount of total protein (rather they just gave one group extra protein doses before sleep instead, so maybe the improvements were due to more protein as opposed to night time casein). Nonetheless, protein ingestion at night is a good method to ensure that you reach your target protein intake for the day.
So at least in terms of protein, spacing meals appropriately might be important. I’d suggest 4 meals a day of 20-25g, plus a pre-sleep meal of 0.6g/kg body mass (just multiply your weight in kg by 0.6 to get this value for your last meal. I like to call is supper, wild I know). If consuming one of these meals soon after training is a logistical nightmare, then having a shake after training won’t do you any harm.
Might not matter…
Carbohydrate timing. Whether that be avoiding carbohydrates at breakfast to ‘optimise fat burning’, or timing carbs only around your training, to avoiding all carbs until the evening, post-training, most of you will have tried some form of timing of your carbohydrates. Let me just say now, avoiding carbs at breakfast may in fact result in more fat oxidation (the burning of fat for energy) in your body (woohoo, I hear you cry). That’s right, if you don’t eat carbs at breakfast, you will burn more fat. But what are the chances of you eating say eggs, salmon, avocado (insert other delicious breakfast foods here) instead? These foods are all relatively high in fat. If you don’t get your energy from carbohydrates, you’ll likely look to protein and fats instead. But what happens when you eat more fat? You burn more fat, because that is the fuel source available to your body to use for energy. Does that mean that you are burning/losing body fat? No. It means you are using the fat that you ate to give you energy. Cue bulletproof coffee debate (let’s leave that for another time). And if you eat carbs for breakfast, you will burn carbs for energy. And later, when you eat your fat macros for meals 3/4/5, you will likely burn more fat. Point being, fats for breakfast are great. But so are carbs for breakfast. This is very unlikely to manipulate your total daily fat oxidation over 24 hours. You generally burn what you eat. So what do you prefer to eat? Pass me the oats.
‘Carbohydrate backloading’ is another popular method of nutrient timing, that appears to still be doing the rounds especially in fitness. Originally coined by John Kiefer, carbohydrate backloading is underpinned by the theory that eating all carbs after training takes advantage of natural fluctuations in insulin sensitivity of our bodies, alongside the non-insulin dependent uptake of glucose that occurs after we exercise, therefore apparently allowing us to store carbohydrates as muscle glycogen, as opposed to storing them as fat. Kiefer suggests training in the evening and restricting all carbs (except vegetables), until after this time. In the morning, our insulin sensitivity in muscle and fat cells is usually slightly higher, therefore eating carbohydrates at this time may not only cause carbohydrate uptake in to muscle, but also in to fat. This is compared to after exercise, when our insulin sensitivity may be slightly lower, whereas our muscles are ‘primed’ to take up glucose after exercise (hence all the carbohydrates are ‘driven’ to muscle tissue as opposed to fat). Scientifically, there is some sense to this concept. However, studies that support this specific localisation of carbohydrates to evening consumption in relation to an improvement in fat loss are limited to a total of one study (one study is not a lot when it comes to making evidence-based recommendations). Over millions of years, our bodies have become pretty good at metabolising all the macronutrients, including carbohydrate, without the requirement of prior exercise to stop us from immediately storing it as fat. In the grand scheme of nutrition, I’d say backloading is generally unwarranted, and may negatively impact training performance. However, for some, who prefer larger meals in the evenings and already train at this time, there may be scope for experimentation on an individual basis. But this method should come last to ensuring daily carbohydrate amounts alongside optimised training intensity. It is not a requirement for fat loss.
However (and it’s a pretty relevant ‘however’), timing your carbs around training may be important if you are in somewhat of a calorie deficit. Dieting can be tough, and in the extremes, can result in a reduction in energy to train. But dieting is no good if we diet so hard that we’re too tired to train effectively. Carbs give us energy. So in times of prolonged dieting, when the weights may start to feel heavier (this is not a given FYI, and doesn’t always happen), having a lovely bowl of warm comforting carby oats before a training session might give you the boost that you need (alongside a strong dose of caffeine) to fuel you to train harder than you would otherwise. In addition, if you are training again in less than 12 hours, or after one or two meals only, it would be a good idea to have carb sources within your meals after training, to restore your muscle glycogen (our bodies store of carbohydrate) before training again. This will help fuel your subsequent session. It also really helps you work efficiently when you have a little bowl of coco pops waiting in your locker.
Don’t waste your energy…
“My friend followed the no carbs after dark and lost 4lb”. Carbohydrates at night will not make you fat. Our bodies do not just stop being able to digest carbs past 6pm. In fact, carbohydrates as a last meal can be really helpful in those who struggle to sleep, as not only might they contribute to higher serotonin levels helping us to sleep better, but they can also improve satiety (how full you feel), which can often be a contributing factor to poor sleep when you diet. This ‘rule’ may work for some, but the reason being that it likely minimises calorie intake not only at night, but specifically as a total throughout the day. Reducing energy intake (below expenditure) will of course assist in fat loss. But let’s stop with the whole ‘carbs at night are bad’ mentality. Embrace the night time proats by combing the world’s greatest carb source with your recommended nightly protein dose and enjoy the internal 10pm hug it brings.
Number 1. Energy balance. If you want to lose fat, you will need to be in an energy deficit (taking in less than you expend). If you want to gain muscle, it will really help you to be in a calorie surplus. This, and your total daily macronutrient intakes matter far more than any timing.
Number 2. Do what you prefer. Do what you like. Sure, have the knowledge of methods that may work to your advantage, but remember that adherence comes first. If you have to excuse yourself from meetings at work to go and eat, or if you’re starving throughout the day because you haven’t yet trained and therefore can’t have your carbs yet, have a word with yourself. Nutrition is not a short-term thing. Sure, on occasions such as competition prep or right before a big life event, you might want to increase your anality (that’s not a word, but absolutely should be therefore screw you spell check, it’s staying in) surrounding your nutritional intake. Then, you might want to consider those things that might matter in the slightest. But for the majority of the time, you’ve got to live like this. Don’t make it any harder for yourself. Work from the general recommendations for your daily intakes and go from there. Nutrition is fun (it is, I promise), so don’t ruin that by overthinking and over-restricting based on some metaphorical rule book that doesn’t actually have any underpinning evidence. Do what you love, and do it well.
If you need any help in setting your energy, macronutrient or timing targets, email me on [email protected] or using the ‘contact me’ link on this site.
- , J.L., Burke, L.M., Ross, M.L., Camera, D.M., West, D.W., Broad, E.M., Jeacocke, N.A., Moore, D.R., Stellingwerff, T., Phillips, S.M. and Hawley, J.A., 2013. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. The Journal of physiology, 591(9), pp.2319-2331.
- Snijders, T.; Res, P.T.; Smeets, J.S.J.; van Vliet, S.; van Kranenburg, J.; Maase, K.; Kies, A.K.; Verdijk, L.B.; van Loon, L.J.C. Protein ingestion before sleep increases muscle mass and strength gains during prolonged resistance-type exercise training in healthy young men. J. Nutr. 2015, 145, 1178–1184
- Res, P.T.; Groen, B.; Pennings, B.; Beelen, M.; Wallis, G.A.; Gijsen, A.P.; Senden, J.M.G.; van Loon, L.J.C. Protein ingestion before sleep improves postexercise overnight recovery. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 2012, 44, 1560–1569.