“You are what you eat,” is a common saying. But when it comes to optimizing the nutrients you put into your body, when you eat can be a significant factor to your body’s performance and energy levels.
By using a concept known as nutrient timing you can fine-tune your body’s performance, recovery and metabolism by being deliberate with when and what you eat as it relates to your daily activity.
“Nutrient timing requires a slightly different mindset than just following a typical diet or striving to eat healthy,” explains Steve Kopshaw, personal trainer and studio owner at Fitness Together Scarsdale. “The best way to describe it is fueling up properly for your day and adopting the concept that food is your fuel. Essentially, you’re going to eat to recover, increase metabolism and energize your body so it’s prepared to perform an activity.”
Nutrient timing is more than knowing that a healthy diet is made up of carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables. It takes eating and working out to a new level by planning what and when you eat around the duration and intensity of your daily workouts and activities to get the best results.
Whether your end goal is to compete in an endurance event, increase your workout intensity or participate in a fitness competition, it’s important to incorporate the following four elements of nutrient timing into your daily routine.
Rise, Shine, Fuel for the Day
It can be easy to skip breakfast as you’re running around the house getting yourself and your family ready for the day. But if you don’t take time to fuel your tank with a healthy, well-balanced meal before you head out the door, your body will soon crash and burn before you’re halfway through your day.
After sleeping for seven or eight hours during the night, your body wakes up nutritionally deficient. This makes breakfast the most important meal and part of your day, especially if you’re working out regularly or training for an athletic event.
Start your day out nutritionally strong by eating a mix of complex carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats so you’ll have the energy to perform your best day-in and day-out. Oatmeal and eggs are typical breakfast staples, but Kopshaw advises clients to break out of the mindset of what meals are “supposed” to look like and instead focus on consuming the nutrients you need to succeed. A snack isn’t always going to be nuts. It could be eggs if you need a protein-based snack. Or vice versa: You may opt for adding nuts into your breakfast to fulfill your morning protein needs.
“Everybody should eat breakfast and it should likely be your biggest meal of the day because you’re fueling up to get through the next 15 to 16 hours,” says Kopshaw. “When people think of breakfast they think they can only eat certain breakfast foods, but that isn’t entirely the case. There are a lot more options of foods you can eat to fuel your day.
"People have to let go of what meals are supposed to look like and break the normal thought process of what eating and nutrition is when it comes to nutrient timing.”
Carbo Load to Fuel Your Workouts
When you start looking at the specifics of nutrient timing you'll find that carbohydrates are the most important food group to focus on, especially as it relates to preparing for your workout and fueling during your activity. Carbohydrates are essentially the easiest form of energy for your body. When you’re getting ready to do a strenuous workout or activity, you need to fuel to increase your energy levels and carbs are typically your best bet.
All carbs, however, aren’t created equally. This food group is broken down into two categories -- simple and complex.
Simple carbs are quickly absorbed and are used for a quick spike in energy. These carbs, such as fruit, gels and endurance jelly beans, should be eaten during your activity or workout to keep you going and to ensure that you don’t hit a wall before the end of your activity.
Complex carbs should be used for maintaining energy levels for a longer period of time. When you hear about athletes “carbo loading” before a marathon, it means that they are eating complex carbs the night before and for breakfast on the day of their event.
Recover with Appropriate Amounts of Protein
Protein also plays an important role in nutrient timing, especially as it relates to recovering after vigorous activity. You need to eat an adequate amount of protein throughout the day, but you need to eat more protein post-workout and within a short timeframe of finishing your activity.
It’s important to note, though, that your body is only able to absorb so much protein at once. So, you shouldn’t fuel up with a 50-gram protein meal or shake after a workout because your body won’t be able to absorb all of that protein. Almost half of that much protein will end up turning into fat and waste, making it imperative for the consumption of protein to happen over the course of more frequent, smaller-portion meals.
“Protein is extremely important for building muscle or leaning out,” says Kopshaw. “Someone who is looking at building lean mass will need to eat more protein post-workout versus someone who is doing an intense endurance workout, who will need to eat more of a well-balanced mix of protein and complex carbs prior to their workout. It all comes down to aligning your goals with the timing of your nutrient consumption.”
Smaller Meals More Often is Better When It Comes to Daily Meal Planning
Breaking out your meals into smaller portions, but with higher frequency, can help you get the most out of the food you eat. The more times you eat throughout the day, the more energy and longevity you’re going to have from sunup to sundown. If you prime your engine early and feed it regularly, your body will be in the best shape to perform at the level you need.
“If you’re looking at your day as a road trip driving from New Jersey to Florida, you have to make sure you’re eating enough throughout the day to make your trip,” explains Kopshaw. “If you’re doing heavy intense workouts during the day, you’re going to utilize more fuel and need more food more often.
“Also, a vegetarian is going to have different dietary needs than a person who follows a more omnivore/carnivore diet,” continues Kopshaw. “If you eat a huge salad for lunch, that’s great for filling you up. But you’re going to have to eat sooner -– within 60 to 90 minutes -- than someone who eats steak for lunch which should fill you up for a longer period of time.”
The exact timing of your meals throughout your day is different for everyone as each person has different goals, body composition and activity levels. When you make the mental shift, though, of seeing food as fuel and understanding the importance of fueling up your body for proper performance, recovery and metabolism levels, you can begin taking a dynamic approach to nutrition and exercise.