How to distribute protein, carbs, and fat to stave off hunger without affecting performance
Articles on nutrient timing are to the fitness industry what Billy Squire’s Big Beat is to hip-hop; it’s been done. Nutrient timing is obsessed over by stubborn bros, with one hand shackled to a shaker bottle 24-7; and dismissed by IIFYMers, laughing into their evidence based Facebook group, with a fist full of pop tarts, and a mouth full of kids cereal.
Carbs are front loaded, backloaded, and aligned with your circadian rhythm. Fat is avoided in your anabolic window, and 80% of your carb intake is bracketed around your training.
In other words, it’s likely something you’ve heard about.
But what if you concentrated on the distribution of the nutrients you eat during the day, in order to stave off hunger without affecting your training performance; is that something we could talk about?
Ok good! Let’s get to it.
In order to concentrate on the distribution of calories across your day in to keep you feeling full and happy, and without letting your training suck, we have to mention a couple of truths, and dispel a few myths.
Truth 1: Protein Timing Is Important
As much as it’s fun to be reductionist in the fitness industry these days, the idea that protein timing is of no importance is just bunk. The idea that you can get all your protein in one or two big boluses and still optimise muscle gain is false. Even if you do hit your macros by the end of the day, the frequency of protein feedings is still going to be key.
It’s a tough call to give an exact protein recommendation for every single person in every single scenario, but the number of leucine threshold hitting protein feedings per day, the amount, and the timing is something that needs to be considered. Admittedly, this stuff matters less for straight up weight loss so feel free to skip that breakfast, but to give yourself a head start for muscle gain, you might want to consider spreading your protein feedings out fairly evenly during the day, and not skimping before bed.
Myth 1: Carbs Help Protein Synthesis
This one is still tough for bros and non-bros alike the world over. When you’ve invested a lot of time and money over the years shoving 100g of dextrose down your gullet the second your training has finished, in order to spike insulin and increase protein synthesis, it can be a bitter shake to swallow when I tell you you’ve likely been wasting your time.
However, the science is pretty clear on this. Once you’ve eaten, or drunk, a relatively modest amount of protein, carbs will not increase protein synthesis further. Even the often obsessed over “insulin spike”, doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in squeezing out extra growth if a minimum amount of protein is met.
What About Glycogen?
“But what about glycogen?!!! Surely I’m improving recovery by getting Carbs in when my muscles are the most sensitive to them?”
Well yes and no. If you’ve got to train those same muscles again in a few hours, then shoving in a load of carbs as soon as you’ve finished training might well be important, but the chances are that you aren’t. In which case any acute timing of carbs is going to be pretty insignificant. If you’re doing a normal bodybuilding type training session then you’ll likely deplete muscle glycogen by less than 40%, it’s not going to be too hard to put that back in within the usual time frame before training again.
Truth 2 Meal Frequency Matters
Not just protein frequency, meal frequency. But perhaps not in the way you think.
It may be crushingly boring, but your body seems to like regularity. Sleeping, training, and eating at roughly the same time every day means that you become entrained to the particular time you do those things. Simply, if you do something at the same time every day, your body will begin to expect that thing to happen then. In terms of your diet, eating haphazardly every day has been shown to cause a lower post meal metabolic rate, decreased insulin sensitivity, a lower thermic effect of food, and higher LDL and total cholesterol when compared to a regular meal schedule. Although the lower thermic effect of food – which just means how much energy your body uses to process and store food – and glucose responses don’t add up to much, it’s worth considering the effect on your appetite and hunger before eating 9 meals one day, and 3 the next.
Not Such A Big Deal
Even though the effects above aren’t exactly a physiological deal breaker, the fact that you get hungry around the time you normally eat can certainly have an acute impact on what you end up scoffing. There could also be a detrimental effect on the general composition of your diet, due to eating on the fly not being generally the best way to make decent food choices.
Staying roughly with your regular meal frequency, I’m not talking about carrying a stop watch around here, should leave you slightly less hungry, and will perhaps burn (very) slightly more calories.
Myth 2: Fat Slows Digestion Of Other Nutrients, Limiting Your Gains
As you’ve already discovered, super quick glycogen repletion isn’t really important for your needs, and even if it was, eating a boatload of fat with your post training meal won’t make any difference in the time frames (24 hours) we discussed in terms of glycogen re-synthesis.
“But what about protein synthesis; won’t eating fat post-training slow the uptake of amino acids? I thought having a “fast” protein like whey was a good thing?”
Well it still is in certain cases, it’s just that the addition of fat, doesn’t seem to make much difference to protein digestion, or muscle protein synthesis. There might even be some sneaky beneficial effects of fat + protein, rather than just protein alone, but the jury is still out on that one.
Myth 3: You Need To Eat Carbs Before Training
I’ve saved the most controversial until last. I’ve met people who are so resigned to the fact that they’re going to have the worst training session ever because they haven’t had any carbs before they train, that they hardly put any effort into they’re training at all. As a result, their session was destined to suck before they even began. For these people, is it that they’re just in tune with their bodies, or is it a large case of the nocebo effect? Let’s have a peek at the literature and see.
Glycogen, Glucose, And Resistance Training
The first thing we need to work out is what does resistance training do to our blood glucose levels, and what happens if we train with low glycogen levels in the first place. Answering these two questions lets us know whether we have to even bother with any carbs in any period pre-training at all.
To answer the first question, we can see that one hour of training including the bench-press, deadlift, and squats; or a 40 minute free weights session, both failed to have any effect on blood glucose levels. So, that ticks that off the list.
Resistance training with low glycogen however, is less clear cut, with one study showing that it makes no difference to performance, and another study showing that performance of squats tanked with low pre-training muscle glycogen levels. Faced with a 50/50 like that, I’ll err on the side of caution and say that there’s no good reason to go into your training with low glycogen levels. Luckily for you, as I mention in myth 1, with a pretty moderate number of carbs in the diet, and assuming you’re not dieting in any extreme way, abnormally low glycogen levels should never really be a problem. Which brings us to pre-training carb intake. Is there a benefit?
The Pre-Training Problem
The answer to the question of “do pre-training carbs help my performance in the gym, is, frustratingly, sometimes yes (1 2), and sometimes no (1 2). Completely anecdotally, some people do seem to do better with carbs, and for some others, it doesn’t seem to matter. Either way, if you’re necking down a shake, loaded with powdered carbs 15 minutes before you train in the hope that you’ll be able to get a volume PR on your seventh set of triceps pushdowns, you’re likely spinning your wheels.
What To Do?
Now we know that after protein, the timing of other nutrients is far less important, how can you use this information then, in constructing your own diet. And here’s where this knowledge becomes handy, because where weight loss is concerned, one of the major reasons your diet is hard to stick to comes down to one thing. Hunger.
The Hunger Games
A diet where you don’t feel hungry is a diet that you can stick to, but hunger is complicated. There is homeostatic eating, and non-homeostatic eating, and both are driven by hunger felt to different degrees based on a lot of physiological, environmental, and emotional factors. Luckily, concentrating on the distribution of the food that you eat during the day, by having smaller meals where you’re usually the least hungry, and larger meals where you’re the hungriest, goes a long way to mitigating both the physiological, and psychological factors.
When are you most hungry? When I ask that question, I normally get different answers; after training, in the evening, first thing in the morning. There is no right or wrong; hunger, just like you, is individual.
Contrary to what you might think, high intensity training doesn’t actually cause ravenous hunger. However, after training, is when most people feel like they deserve something for all the hard work they’ve put in. Couple that with the fact that people usually believe that carbs will be used acutely to help in recovery while aiding protein synthesis, and all of a sudden the whey shake laced with 100g of powdered “recovery” carbs, or the protein bar with the donut three pack chaser seems like a legit choice.
You Deserve It
What’s really going on here is you’ve become accustomed to “treating” yourself. As soon as the training is over, the “want” to ingest your usual post-workout sugar bomb is what you’re confusing with actual hunger. If you back off on the treats, and just take in the minimum amount of protein post-training instead, you’ve just created a pretty large calorie buffer to use when you’re really hungry at any point during the day.
The evening is another case. You certainly might be naturally hungry at that time, but there’s also a chance that after fending off well-meaning biscuit wielding workmates all day, you’ve exhausted your ability to say no. Then, when you get home to find a fridge filled with nothing but half a pint of milk and a slightly limp stick of celery, you cave. Before you know it, with a few swipes of your phone, deliveroo have arrived with 2,000 calories worth of next morning’s shame.
The more you fight off the cheat foods, the harder it is to say no. As we’ll see though, with a little bit of planning, you can avoid these pitfalls.
The Benefit Of Boring
As dull as it sounds, the way to do this is to have a vague structure in place. If you’ve given yourself macro goals, or a calorie target; waking up, starting to eat, and just winging-it as you go, can easily lead to eating too much when psychologically you’re the most prone to over eating. Leaving yourself with hardly any calories left at the times when you’re actually hungry is a recipe for dietary failure. So how do you plan for this? The best way, as with most things, is to suck it and see.
We know that splitting up your protein across the day is very likely beneficial, so that has to happen. We also know that sticking to a particular meal frequency also has benefits, so we’ll do that too. Let’s say then that you have a scenario where you’re going to eat at breakfast, lunch, post-training, and once again before bed. Once protein is divided up between those meals, with possibly a little bit more in the last one before bed, you simply push the rest of the nutrients into the meals that you’re the hungriest during.
If you find, like some people do, that your hunger is suppressed post training, then you know that protein and minimal amounts of everything else should go there. Big breakfast lover? Light-luncher? Midnight feast? You’ll soon plan something out that works for you that allows very non-diet-like meals to be eaten on a daily basis. All of a sudden, your diet is less of a concern, leaving you to worry about the other important things in life, like should I use trad or matched-grip, or will Link ever find Zelda.
If you find yourself struggling to find a pattern in your hunger throughout the day; just try out distributing calories heavily towards different meals. You’ll know if you’re on to something when you suddenly hit the sweet spot. But don’t stress it too much.
The New Rules Of Nutrient Timing
- Timing and the per-meal amount of your protein intake is still important if muscle gain (as well as fat loss) is your goal.
- Eating at regular times during the day means your body will process the meals better than a haphazard eating pattern, and you’ll naturally get hungry during the times when you usually eat.
- Where carbs and fat are concerned, the total daily amount is way more important than any effects of timing where body composition and resistance training performance are concerned.
- Eat your largest meals when you’re most hungry and don’t worry about the other stuff.
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