When to Eat to Gain Weight

New research has found that nutrient timing might not be so important after all (1).

In fact, it might only be important for “elite eaters”/pro bodybuilders/athletes where an extra half % of fats can mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Or when you have multiple workout sessions. Refer to the diagram below to see if you really need it.

Nutrient timing table

As such, I have updated this article, while still keeping the old research there so that you can get a better understanding.

The old research was expounded by many (2), such as Dr John Berardi (3), but even he has come out to speak about the myths of nutrient timing (1).

Traditionally, nutrient timing can be classified into 4 phases:

  • Energy phase
  • Anabolic phase
  • Growth phase
  • Recovery phase


1. Energy Phase

This phase occurs while you are working out and using the most energy.

In this phase, there are both anabolic and catabolic effects happening in your body.

In layman terms, anabolic is synthesis while catabolic is breaking down.

Obviously, in the energy phase, you will be undergoing more catabolic reactions in your body.

Your glycogen stores will decrease and cortisol (catabolic hormone) levels will increase.

So traditionally, what is recommended is to: 

  • Drink a preworkout drink consisting of protein/carbohydrate both before and during your workout
  • This is to reduce the catabolic effects and to enhance the anabolic effects
  • This will prevent potential muscle breakdown and at the same time, suppress cortisol concentrations.
  • A pre workout drink comprising 0.8g of carbohydrate/kg and 0.4g of protein/kg diluted is recommended
  • Leucine (for protein synthesis), Vitamin C and E (reduce free radicals), sodium, potassium and magnesium (replace electrolytes) can be thrown in as well

What the latest research say however, is that: 

  • Studies show that ingesting fast releasing carbs and protein is counter-effective
  • Carbs: there was a significant reduction in post exercise cortisol when carbs were not ingested before exercise (4)
  • Protein: raised cortisol levels when compared to ingesting whole protein foods (4)

The takeaway

  • This does not mean not to consume carbs and proteins before workouts! You still need energy
  • But consume them much earlier (1-2hrs for a snack, 2-3hrs for a meal) than your workout
    • Because you need time to digest to get energy
    • You don’t want to be digesting food during your workout, as blood will be flowing to your digestive system and you will fatigue faster
  • Fast digesting carb and protein supplements are not necessary pre-workout though they can still be consumed in small amounts


2. Anabolic Phase

This phase occurs after your workout.

Although this is called the anabolic phase, it is actually catabolic for a while and will be so if you do not consume enough nutrients.

So traditionally, what is recommended is to: 

  • Take a protein and carbohydrate supplement (in a ratio of 2:1)
  • As your muscle cells’ insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance levels are increased (muscle cells are more permeable to glucose)
  • In other words, within the first 30-45 minutes of post workout, our body is hungry for nutrients and we should feed it quickly
  • Taking fast digesting carbs will also help to spike insulin levels to promote muscle synthesis

What the latest research say however, is that: 

  • Traditional studies were too short term. Positive results in the short term does not mean positive results in the long term (5)
  • Longer term studies have found that this “anabolic window” is actually much longer than the 30-45 minutes (est 4-6 hours) (5)
  • In fact, how much and what you eat is more important than when you eat
    • It was found that complete glycogen resynthesis after depletion occurred within the same day (as long as total carbs were matched) (6)
  • Insulin is permissive rather than stimulatory. A moderate amount of carbs/proteins is enough to activate insulin and let do its job (7)
    • What’s also interesting is that carbs + protein did not increase post workout protein balance when compared to protein alone (8)

The takeaway

  • There is nothing wrong with rushing to consume fast digesting protein such as whey protein right after workouts, though you have a longer time to do so
  • The anabolic window depends on when you had your pre-workout meal: the closer to your workout = longer window
  • You don’t have to gorge yourself with food after your workout
    • Fast digesting protein/Whey protein still remains important though research is still sketchy about fast digesting carbs


3. Growth Phase

During the growth phase (which lasts for 4 hours post workout), your body will adjust itself by moving back to its normal state.

This is a segment of rapid muscle repair and growth.

In this phase, insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance levels are also slowly declining.

So traditionally, what is recommended is to: 

  • You don’t have to eat as much carbohydrates as compared to proteins. i.e ratio of 1:1 for this phase instead of 2:1 for the previous phases.
  • Avoid protein/carbohydrate drinks and get your calories from whole foods.

The takeaway

  • If you have read what I have written earlier, there is no need to follow the traditional guidelines
  • Just ensure that you consume enough calories and nutrients (count it here)


4. Recovery Phase

For this phase (rest of the time), stick to the proper nutrition guidelines as shared in ectomorph diet guidelines.




(1) Pierre, B. S. (n.d.). Is nutrient timing dead? And does “when” you eat really matter? Retrieved from Precision Nutrition: http://www.precisionnutrition.com/nutrient-timing

(2) Chambers, A., & Kravitz, L. (n.d.). Nutrient Timing: The New Frontier in Fitness Performance. Retrieved from University of New Mexico: https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/nutrientUNM.html

(3) Berardi, J. (2004, April 4). The Science of Nutrient Timing – Part I. Retrieved from JohnBerardi.com: http://www.johnberardi.com/articles/nutrition/nutr_timing_1.htm?from=pn

(4) Hofmekler, O. (2005, May 6). Exposed: The Top Ten Diet Fallacies – And The Truth to Set You Free. Retrieved from Dragon Door: http://www.dragondoor.com/articles/diet-fallacy-2-eating-before-exercising-will-provide-your-muscles-with-instant-energy/

(5) Bornstein, A. (2014, February 19). The Truth about Nutrient Timing? Retrieved from Born Fitness: http://www.bornfitness.com/the-truth-about-nutrient-timing/

(6) Parkin JA; Carey MF; Martin IK; Stojanovska L; Febbraio MA. (1997). Muscle glycogen storage following prolonged exercise: effect of timing of ingestion of high glycemic index food. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 29(2), 220-4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9044226

(7) Phillips, S. M. (2008). Insulin and muscle protein turnover in humans: stimulatory, permissive, inhibitory, or all of the above? American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism, Vol. 295no. 4, E731. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18628353

(8) Staples, A. W., Burd, N. A., West, D. W., Currie, K. D., Atherton, P. J., & Moore, D. R. (2011). Carbohydrate does not augment exercise-induced protein accretion versus protein alone. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 1154-61. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21131864



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