Updated: Jun 5, 2018
You have probably seen so many different recommendations on this topic that you wonder what is right and what is wrong. To make things even worse, it usually goes from one extreme to another. From having recommendations to eat every 2-3 hours and to never miss the anabolic post workout window to intermittent fasting. So how do you truly optimize your nutrition for maximum muscle gain and fat loss? I will explain you by going through some main elements therefore you can know for sure who is right and who is wrong.
First of all lets distinguish once and for all what are the myths when it comes to nutrient timing. I will assume that by now everybody knows that increasing the amount of meals in a day does not affect your metabolism and it will not help you lose fat. Therefore I will move on to more interesting theories that proved to be wrong! Of course, one of my favorite is post exercise anabolic window where you have 30 min to an hour to take your dose of protein and high glycemic carbs to maximize your muscle growth. It was given so much importance that at one point it was believed to be even more important than your overall caloric intake.
Now lets see where did this myth come from. In theory after a resistance exercise, your body incurs muscle damage and it also get depleted with certain nutrients. The idea is that after the workout, there is a time window where the body would super compensate for this if you supply it with enough protein and carbohydrates. As the muscle protein synthesis is at its highest after a workout, it makes sense to have your dose of protein during that period. Seems completely logical.
Another theory is that you have to take high glycemic carbohydrates after your workout to spike up your insulin levels and also to replenish your glycogen stores in your muscles. As we all know, insulin is an anabolic hormone, mainly helping our body to reduce muscle protein breakdown, also called proteolysis. Therefore it is believed that spiking insulin levels will help our system reduce proteolysis, therefore increasing muscle protein synthesis resulting in muscle growth over time. Now the second part of this theory is glycogen replenishment. When you exercise your body mainly uses glycogen for energy. Glycogen is mainly stored in your muscles and it gets depleted during your workout. As you finish your workout the goal would be to replenish these stores as soon as possible, especially when your body super compensates right after the workout. This also sounds completely logical. Now lets see how does it actually work in real life.
Post Workout Protein
Post workout protein depends on your pre workout meal. If you trained fasted. then getting those nutrients within 30-45 minutes is a good idea. It will still not make any significant difference overall but it gives you an advantage. On the other hand if you had your pre workout meal 1-3 hours before, you should not be worried about getting your next meal as soon as possible as your pre workout meal is still digesting.
What is important is your daily intake of protein, which should be 0.8 - 1.0 g per pound of body weight.
There has been a lot of studies and research done on this topic as well as experiments. After looking at the meta analysis, comparing groups with post workout protein intake versus groups without post workout protein intake, no differences were found. This means that getting your protein intake as soon as you finish your workout does not benefit you. What is important is your daily intake of protein, which should be 0.8-1.0g per pound of body weight.
On the other hand we cannot completely ignore nutrient timing and go to the opposite extreme and eat once a day. It has been proven that eating protein 1-3 hours before and 2-4 hours post exercise is beneficial for gaining muscle and improving your physique. That simply means that you should eat your meals normally throughout the day on a regular basis.
Post Workout Carbs
There are two main reasons why people argue that combining carbs and protein post workout is beneficial. The first one is insulin spike which has anabolic effects on muscles and helps to increase the amino acid intake into the tissue while preventing muscle protein breakdown at the same time. And the second one is that it helps you refill the depleted glycogen stores during your workout.
The only situation where consuming post workout fast carbs would be beneficial is if you are intermittent fasting and you did not heave any food before your workout.
While this in theory sounds perfectly logical, research failed to show any effects of carbohydrate on increasing post-exercise muscle protein synthesis. Moreover, the main role of insulin is the reduction of muscle catabolism and has little effect on anabolic activities. So the question is, can we use this to reduce muscle protein breakdown post exercise and that way increase the gap of MPS and MPB which results in greater muscle growth? To understand this we need to look at what happens when we consume carbohydrates. After the ingestion insulin rises sharply by three times within 30 minutes, and increases to five times after an hour. Even after 5 hours insulin levels are still doubled meaning that we do not have any benefits of consuming quick post workout fast carbs if we had a pre-workout meal as we usually do. The only situation where consuming post workout fast carbs would be beneficial is if you are intermittent fasting and you did not heave any food before your workout.
As for the glycogen theory it would only make sense if you have 2 workouts during the day, where after first session you would replenish your glycogen with a post workout fast acting carbs (1-1.5 grams/Kg of body weight), which would allow you do hit the same muscle group with some accessory work later in the day. In case you are working out once a day, like most of us do, there is simply no need for this as your glycogen stores would be replenished within 24 hours just by having your regular meals.
The takeaway point here is that as long as you hit your daily carbohydrate requirements, consuming carbs in a post workout meal has no additional benefits.
Do you need to spread your protein intake?
Most of us are familiar with the theory that spreading your protein intake during the day is the best way to maximize muscle growth. This has been practiced for many years and it has been accepted until intermittent fasting was introduced.
Now what does science say about this? If we look at the feeding frequency research, a recent study by Mamerow and colleagues compared two groups with different protein distributions. One group had 2/3 of their daily protein in one meal and another group had an even distribution of protein across all meals. The results showed that the second group had a higher muscle protein synthesis by 25% for the day.
If we take into account that consuming an average solid meal with 20-40 grams of protein, 50-80 grams of carbs, and 15-20 grams of fats, produces anabolic effects that last up to 5 hours, we can conclude that consuming 3-4 meals per day with equal protein distribution is ideal for maximizing muscle growth.
Night time casein benefits
This one has also been around for many years. I remember practicing this at the very beginning of my fitness journey, around 15 years ago. But what does the science say? Do we have any benefits with taking slow digesting proteins before we go to sleep?
The answer is yes, but minimal. Again we come back to the total daily protein intake which should be your priority. However, optimizing your nutrition means optimizing nutrient timing once everything else is in order. Recent studies have shown that there are benefits from taking any kind of high quality protein 1-3 hours before sleep. Taking 40 g of protein before bed boosted muscle protein synthesis by 22% vs not taking any protein. However if you combine this with Casein, which usually takes even up to 7 hours to fully digest and get into your blood stream, you get the best of both worlds. A slow release of amino acids during the night with a significant increase in muscle protein synthesis.
Keep in mind that overall this does not affect you much and at best provides you with minimal gains. So as long as you have a sufficient amount of daily protein intake, you do not have to worry much about casein.
Putting it all together
Protein and carbohydrate timing can give you a small advantage, particularly if you strategically place your meals around your workouts but it certainly it not the most important element to getting a good physique. What I would recommend is to try it and see if your workouts will improve. If not then just make sure your total daily macro nutrient intake is sufficient to keep you moving toward your goal.
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