Nutrient timing

Active bodies need various different nutrients every day, including carbohydrate, protein, fat, fluid, vitamins and minerals. Carbohydrate, protein and fluid are three key nutrients we need to perform several important functions, including supporting physical activity. Thinking about when it is best to eat foods containing these nutrients is essential for the body to use them effectively and reap their benefits.

  • Carbohydrate - a source of energy
    Which foods are rich in carbohydrate?

    Grains and grain-based products such as breads, cereals, rice and pasta, fruit, starchy vegetables such as potato and sweet corn, legumes, milk, yoghurt, custard and some dairy alternatives all contain good amounts of carbohydrate.

    Carbohydrate throughout the day
    Eating carbohydrate-rich foods at breakfast is especially important as the body’s stores of carbohydrate (in the liver and muscles) are drained during sleep. The carbohydrate eaten at breakfast is used to replenish these stores, providing an energy source the body can draw from over the day. Eating sufficient carbohydrate-rich foods throughout helps to top up the body’s carbohydrate stores to maintain physiological functions, physical activity, and to maintain concentration. Low carbohydrate stores can lead to feeling low in energy, tiredness, poor concentration and difficulty focusing, all making daily activities and exercise more difficult.

    Carbohydrate before exercise
    The body prefers to use carbohydrate as its main energy source during moderate to high exercise as it’s able to break the carbohydrate down quickly and efficiently for readily available energy. Eating a carbohydrate-rich meal or snack before exercising ensures sufficient carbohydrate stores to fuel the entire exercise session to optimise performance and make the most training gains. 

    Carbohydrate-rich meals before exercise should be eaten 2-4 hours prior, to fuel the session. If a snack is preferred instead, this should be eaten 1-2 hours beforehand. For exercise before breakfast, a carbohydrate-rich snack eaten just prior to bed the night before, followed by a light carbohydrate snack on waking, will optimise energy stores.

    Carbohydrate after exercise
    Carbohydrate stores decrease during exercise as the carbohydrate is drawn on to provide energy for the activity. Eating foods rich in carbohydrate after exercise replenishes the stores, thereby ensuring the body continues to have enough energy to fuel its ongoing physiological functions, fuel the brain, and prevent fatigue. The body is most efficient at replenishing fuel stores for faster recovery and to prepare for the next exercise session in the hours after finishing a training session. 

    A recovery meal or snack containing carbohydrate-rich food and eaten soon after completing exercise takes advantage of this. It is also thought eating carbohydrate-rich foods soon after exercise has a positive effect on the immune system as it may reduce exercise-induced immunosuppression.

  • Protein for muscle growth and repair
    Which foods are rich in protein?
    Animal sources of protein-rich foods are red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, and dairy. Legumes, tofu, nuts, and some dairy alternatives are plant based sources of protein.

    Protein throughout the day
    The body can only store limited amounts of protein to draw upon for growth as well as ongoing building and repair of body tissues such as muscle. Eating protein regularly over the day by including protein-rich foods at each meal and snack, rather than having the majority of protein-rich foods lumped into one meal, helps to ensure a regular supply of amino acids (the building blocks for all body components made from protein) for the body to use.

    Protein after exercise

    During a training session or competition, body tissues (including muscle) become damaged from the stress applied to them during exercise. Including protein-rich foods as part of a recovery meal or snack after exercise makes amino acids available to use for muscle growth and repair or damaged muscles. Eating foods rich in protein soon after exercise maximises muscle and tissue repair, and continuing to eat high protein meals and snacks every 3-5 hours thereafter avoids delay in the body tissues fully recovering.
  • Fluid for hydration

    What counts as fluid?
    Together with water and other drinks, foods that are liquid consistency at room temperature are also classed as fluids. These include soups, milk, yoghurt and custard.

    Fluid after exercise

    The body loses more fluid during exercise than at rest, mostly due to increased sweating. Dehydration can occur if fluids lost throughout the day and during exercise are not replaced regularly. Fluid and electrolytes after exercise help to rehydrate the body by replacing what has been lost through sweat. It is recommended replenishment of fluids not be delayed after exercise as rehydration will not commence until fluids are consumed. Rehydration following exercise is most effective when fluid intake is spread out rather than drinking large volumes early after the exercise. Drinking small amounts frequently over the 4-6 hours after exercise helps the body to be able to hold onto the fluid more effectively, promoting rehydration.

  • Nutrient timing with dairy foods
    • Milk, yoghurt and custard are convenient sources of carbohydrate, protein, fluid and electrolytes, while cheese provides protein and electrolytes.
    • Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that eating dairy foods before exercise is not associated with increased risk of gut upset. However, some individuals may find that choosing low-fat varieties reduces or eliminates gut upset during exercise as fat can slow digestion.
    • Liquid-based dairy foods such as milk, yoghurt and custard have the benefit of emptying from the stomach more quickly than a solid meal, making them useful for people prone to nerves before exercise, or gut upset during exercise.
    • While sports drinks are a popular choice for rehydration following exercise, regular milk in fact contains more of the important electrolyte sodium than a standard sports drink. By also containing protein and carbohydrate, milk has the additional benefit of providing all nutrients of importance for recovery following exercise.
    • Minimal effort is required to consume liquid dairy foods which can be useful after training when fatigue or poor appetite may reduce motivation to eat a recovery meal or snack.