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How to optimise your meal timing

By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD

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Your main eating goal is to hit your food targets by the end of the day to ensure your get the right balance of food groups & correct calories for your needs.But getting your meal timing right can make a real difference too. I explain how to get it right & where protein supplements can work.

The guiding principles

If you are fitter, leaner & exercise with more effort for longer, meal timing will be more important to you.

In this case, refueling straight after exhaustive exercise clearly helps you perform at training, build fitness & muscle. Think athletes.

If you are just starting your fitness journey with short exercise sessions at a lower effort level & have a lot of body fat to lose, then meal timing is less important.

You may simply focus on hitting your food targets for the day. That said, you may already be timing meals well.

What effort level is important?

At higher exercise effort levels (metabolic workouts) your muscles experience the training stimulus they need to grow.

This benefit starts to happening from an Effort Level of 6 (Somewhat hard) & above on the Effort Gauge above.

If your workouts consist of casual walks that are Comfortably Challenging (Effort Level 5 or less), these are great, but refueling immediately after exercise is not something you need to do.

What effort level are your workouts?

When you do a metabolic workout, you don't just burn calories. You build muscle, which in turn burns more calories every second of the day.

So when you think of running, weight training, bootcamps or crossfit-style workouts, the exercise may be challenging, but that's because of the rewards.

It's worthwhile putting in the additional effort & this is when meal timing makes a bigger difference.

(Always get a medical check before starting an exercise program & exercise within your limits)

Workout duration?

Meal timing (for refueling your body) is unlikely to make a difference for exercise sessions shorter than 30 minutes, unless these are Very Hard (Effort Level 8) & exhaustive.

For endurance athletes who exercise for 45 minutes or more, quickly replenishing glycogen stores (carbohydrate) & getting protein in after exercise can improve performance.

10g Protein & 20g Carbohydrate

If your workouts are at a Hard Effort (Level 7) or more & go for more than 30 minutes, you may build more muscle when you consume protein & carbohydrate after training.

The best average numbers to aim for are 10g protein (to rebuild muscle) & 20g carbohydrate (to refuel & help the protein get in faster).

What foods have 10g protein & 20g carbohydrate?

200g low-fat fruit yoghurt (11g protein, 26g carbs)

250mL chocolate milk (8g protein, 25g carbs)

350mL skim milk (13g protein, 18g carbs)

Naytura 4 Seed Bar (9g protein, BBg carbs)

1 Slice of bread with peanut butter (8g protein, 18g carbs)

But I don't want the carbs!

If you are a lean & fit, training to exhaustion, you'll need the carbohydrate to refuel, so you can train at your peak the next day.

However, if you are getting into fitness & weight loss is your first priority, getting protein after an exhaustive workout is a higher priority, so you may just focus on protein (see protein shakes below).

The morning workout

Eating before an early morning workout is optional. If you don't feel hungry before a 6am session & your energy level is OK, have breakfast afterwards.

Unless you've got a 2-hour endurance session, feeding before a morning workout is unlikely to affect your performance. If you do feel hungry on rising & want something in your belly, try a few mouthfuls of yoghurt, a small bowl of cereal or a slice of toast.

What to eat after a hard morning workout

Muesli or porridge & skim milk is a good combination of protein & carbohydrate for recovery.

Two eggs & a 200mL glass of orange juice is too.

Lunch time workouts

Your morning snack of yoghurt, a piece of fruit or trail mix should keep your energy levels topped up for lunchtime exercise.

If you then do a solid workout in your lunch hour, its best to eat lunch afterwards for recovery fuel.

What to eat after a midday workout

Your usual lunch of lean protein & some starch will be fine. A salad wrap with 100g chicken will give you 20g protein. The wrap will have around 15-20g carbohydrate.

Or leftovers of stir-fry pork & veg with rice will work too.

Evening workouts

If you prefer to exercise at night after the day's jobs are done, you may be concerned about eating too late.

But remember, if you eat dinner at 9pm after exercise & you are still eating within your food exchange targets, this will be fine. The bigger problem is loading up on too many carbohydrates late at night.

What to eat after a night time workout

For exhaustive training, think lean protein, starch & vegetables for dinner. Each 1/3 cup Exchange of cook rice or noodles has 15g carbohydrate. If your evening training is not exhaustive, you can leave out the starch for just protein & veg (if you've already eaten your starchy carbohydrates for the day).

What about protein bars & shakes?

Protein bars or shakes are convenient when you can't get to a meal within around 30 minutes after your workout or you can't stomach a lot of food after hard training.

My general rule is not to replace more than 1 protein food exchange (around 20g protein & 700kJ) with a protein bar or shake, so you focus on real food nourishment. If you are on a higher energy level maintainer or gainer plan, adding a protein supplement makes more sense.

Remember the 10g protein & 20g carbohydrate targets for hard training. Check the nutrition information on your protein bar or shake to see how it compares.



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