Nutrient Timing Endures: Circadian Rhythm Protein Timing

When I started bodybuilding some 7 years ago, everyone I knew ate big breakfasts and 6 meals a day. It was also commonly accepted that carbs should be limited to the start of the day while ‘slow’ forms of energy should be consumed later in the day. Before bed, people said to take casein with some fat to prevent night time catabolism. I can’t even begin to recount how often I’ve eaten oatmeal with whey for breakfast and cottage cheese with flax seed before bed.

These days, things are a lot different. Pretty much all of the forms of nutrient timing I just listed are known to be ineffective. You can skip breakfast without sacrificing gains to cortisol, absolute meal frequency is irrelevant, carbs and fats can be eaten at any time of day and you can go without food for a long time without losing muscle.

These changes have caused many people to be skeptical of nutrient timing as a principle. This skepticism is most strongly represented by the nihilist approach to dieting called IIFYM: if it fits your macros. IIFYM in its purest form (!) states that all that matters in a diet is its macronutrient composition. The amounts of carbs, fat and protein and the resulting total energy intake are all that matters according to pure IIFYM. When you eat those macros is irrelevant: nutrient timing doesn’t enter into it and can go the way of the dodo. While simplistic, this skeptical approach to nutrition is much more scientific than the prevailing broscience attitude of “let’s try everything that sounds cool even if it’s just a theory without any empirical support”.

In the absence of evidence, there is no reason to believe a statement. However, there actually is evidence that IIFYM may be missing something. This something, or something of this something, is circadian rhythm protein timing (CRPT). Let’s look at the evidence.

Read the full article on Human Engine.

56 Comments

  1. dmitry says:

    Thanks meno, keep them coming.

  2. Darren says:

    Maybe this explains why the Dolce Diet works. Dolce has clients losing a lot of bodyweight in a short period of time, yet supposedly retaining lots of LBM and strength. I think he has clients eating animal protein at dinner time. Maybe timing is the key to making things work.

  3. Bobby says:

    Wow – this was awesome. I remember reading your post on a foreign forum (coudlnt get the proper translation) regarding this so it was awesome to see you detail it out. This really falls in line with a leangains/intermittent fasting approach which, as broscience as it sounds, has been REAL MAGIC (:)) for me. Menno, at the end, you noticed that timing for other macros (carb/fat) hasn't been conclusive but I wonder what your GUESS would be as for optimal? Practically speaking, it seems like the most popular (and effective) protcols out there have you consuming majority calories (rpimarliy carbs) after a workout/at night as well. So all else equal, we're essentially looking at a "warrior dietesque" approach with just a massive amount of mixed macros nutrients in the hours leading up to sleep for optimal body comp improvements? Thanks.

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      Thanks, Bobby. There is research indicating that consuming your carbs mostly at the end of the day (PWO) is best. Together with the protein evidence, this means fats are best consumed earlier. However, as I said it’s inconclusive.

  4. Jorit says:

    Thanks Menno, good article.

     

    Just a quick question that's stuck with me after reading. As I understand it the idea behind not having to eat every three hours is that a decent meal will take 6 – 8 hours to digest completely and will continue providing the body with nutrients for even longer. If that's the case how come it matters if you eat – say around 3 pm – or around 8 pm? 

     

    thanks in advance for the reply.

    • Menno Henselmans says:

      Thanks, Jorit. There are several factors to take into account here: digestion, nutrient availability and protein balance. To maximize the latter, you want to have sufficient amino acids in the blood for the full period during which protein balance can be elevated. Going by your numbers, if you want to have maximum protein balance throughout your entire sleeping period, you’d still need to consume your protein right before bed.

  5. Jaap says:

    Very interesting stuff! I'd be interested to see how this ties in with meal frequency…

  6. Menno Henselmans says:

     

    Mike Nadjiwon · · The University Of Pimps & Hustlers

    Unreal. I've been trying to find a credible source of information for a while now and I'm definitely enjoying every single article I've read so far. Bravo

       

      Sam Jackson · · Community Counselor at As a counselor

      I am impressed at the straightforward knowledge, comon sense, and the focus on the facts versus popular trends that I see on this site. Thank you!

    • Phil says:

      Very interesting article Menno. Thanks for that. I have posted your article on the forum of Bodybuilding.com. There is a lot of debate and some people think you've made some incorrect conclusions. It would be interesting if you could respond. Here's the thread.

    • Mike Nadjiwon · Follow · The University Of Pimps & Hustlers

      Unreal. I&#39ve been trying to find a credible
      source of information for a while now and I&#39m definitely enjoying
      every single article I&#39ve read so far. Bravo

    • Sam Jackson · Follow · Community Counselor at As a counselor
      I am impressed at the straightforward knowledge,
      comon sense, and the focus on the facts versus popular trends that I see
      on this site. Thank you!

    • [Automatic import of Facebook comments completed.]

    • Henk says:

      Good to see you discussing this on bodybuilding.com in detail. I was sceptical at first but you may be on to sth here!

    • eccles11 says:

      This makes me feel a while lot better about that tub of casein I ordered the other day.

    • Gautam says:

      This is an excellent article. I’m glad I found this site, where all the bodybuilding BS is filtered through the lens of science. Great work!

      My question is about nighttime meals. Protein absorption capacity is elevated at night/when you sleep, is what I took from the article. Would it be better to take a slower releasing protein like casein at night, instead of a faster absorbed one like whey? Or does it not matter that much?

      • I would recommend a whole protein source. Casein would be ok too, but whey alone isn’t ideal. The total amount of protein is more important than the absorption profile either way.

    • I have a question about nutrient timing. Well, more specifically meal frequency/timing as it relates to health (rather than body composition).

      I was at my dietician today, and she talked about how I should eat something no later than 2 hours after getting up because…I can’t remember exactly, but it was either the body breaks down brain tissue/ because the brain needs the carbs for performance/function. Probably the latter (It was a two hour session, and dragged on forever. >.<* hence why my memory isn't so great about it). She also said when I go without food for, say, 12 hours, that my liver starts creating (or breaking down?) glycogen and that was bad. And something about heart function (it causes you to break down heart muscle, I think she said). And she said she was working on/doing tons of studies with her professor that noted that people who eat 3 meals a day are more likely to lose the weight and keep it off. And to wait no longer than 3-4 hours (5 tops) between meals for these reasons.

      Is any of that true? I brought up you and Armi Legge of Evidence Magazine and she said "okay, we can compare notes/studies." Personally, it sounds like alarmist crap if you ask me. This is the same person who told me to not eat more than 12 oz of fish a week because the EPA said so, because of mercury poisoning. I think I'll take Alan Aragon's word of up to 24 oz (or more?) a week from his Fish Oil article over a government that is still stuck in the fat phobia era of nutrition, and especially considering both the Japanese and Inuit eating TONS of it and still no news of nation-wide heavy metal poisoning or heart failure. Ditto for the eggs as well (which she suggested no more than 3 a week)…Especially when she brought up Doctor Oz being even associated with this (yes, THAT doctor Oz). To be fair, he is a smart cardiologist/heart surgeon, but my ability to give him credence is bellied by his promotion of pseudo-scientific bullshit.

    • So I did a Google search for this article’s title and found this: http://forum.bodybuilding.com/showthread.php?t=154542763
      Which led me to this:
      http://muscleandsportsscience.com/blog-more-on-nutrient-timing-and-meal-spread-benefits-of-detraining-and-sugar-as-the-next-ergogenic/

      Anything of substance in this response to your article? What little I read seemed like just fluff and red herrings. And just bald assertions against the principles demonstrated in the first link

      • MASS is written by Big Cat. He is like Lyle McDonald without Lyle’s intelligence…

        Here’s the thread where I deconstructed his critique and he got mad: http://forum.bodybuilding.com/showthread.php?t=157130393&p=1138757743&viewfull=1#post1138757743

        • Very well said on the forums. :)

          The only thing that had me confused in the forum posts (at first) was Big Cat’s comment on the AM group in the Keim and bros (1997) study having better fat loss (even though the TITLE itself said weight, not fat…nice equivocation there, Big Cat). I don’t know if that’s true (especially considering you pointed out they had better muscle retention and a higher percent lost in body fat in the text of the article). But it sounds like the AM group lost more weight than the PM group mainly because a pound of muscle has 600 Calories compared to a pound of fat’s 3500 (according to Lyle McDonald), and so if the PM group maintained more muscle (given that total Caloric intake was controlled for) it makes sense the AM group would lose more weight. Though it should go without saying that both for both bodybuilding and indeed health purposes (given the problems associated with having too much visceral fat) that it sounds like eating later is a somewhat better idea than earlier.

          What’s more, I laughed hard when he said this article was the worst/stupidest/etc on the topic. I take it Big Cat has never read: http://www.cracked.com/quick-fixes/fat-officially-incurable-according-to-science/ by David Wong. That article is just painful. To give you an idea, the folks at http://thisisthinprivilege.tumblr.com/ (check this video out on them by InternetAristocrat https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=192mLlOBzvE if you want a version of it made less painful with sarcasm) copied it verbatim to their FAQ section on “isn’t being fat like smoking?” last I checked.

          Finally, one last concern. In the Jordan et al. (2010) study, they used nitrogen balance. But I thought you said that was a bad metric to use for these purposes in your 1 g/lb protein article? Though at least you gave a caveat at the end that yeah, there isn’t a LOT of research on this, and there should probably be more being done.

          • Your assertion on the weight vs. fat loss is correct in the Keim et al. study.

            There isn’t much research on CRPT, but basically everything we have supports it. Nitrogen balance isn’t ideal, but in the Jordan et al. study it was well used.

        • I also facepalmed at InItForFitness When he said, “The problem is, how well controlled were their overall diets? :

          “… used a long term cross-over design to compare 2 groups of men
          performing serious resistance training and eating a diet containing
          more than sufficient protein…'”

          Damn, those ellipses get these guys every time. Here’s the rest of what he left out: “The following studies all controlled for daily protein and energy intake.”
          Quote mines–not cool.

    • So based on the comments you left here it sounds like there is also evidence that the same applies to carbs (especially PWO). I wouldn’t be surprised if the same applied to fats too. I mean, given the discussion about the anabolic hormone levels while sleeping, it makes sense (to me at least. :P) that having that fat in your system while you’re asleep would give your body more reagents to use to make those anabolic hormones.

      Let’s also not forget that for much of human history, a LOT of our protein was in fairly fatty sources (meats and fish, and later dairy), so it wouldn’t make sense for me to say, have to use casein powder instead of eating a (lean) steak or some sardines before bed, especially when you yourself said:
      “I would recommend a whole protein source. Casein would be ok too, but
      whey alone isn’t ideal. The total amount of protein is more important
      than the absorption profile either way.”

      So yeah, just my two cents. ;)

      • There is some evidence that fat enhances the effect of protein, but overall fats have less temporal acuity to them. They are generally stored and exert their effects over longer time periods. Unfortunately, there is very little research on fat.

    • “Just a theory”
      Is something I’ve heard from creationists too many times to read without cringing: “Evolution [by Natural Selection] is just a theory! It’s NOT a fact! HUR DUR!”

      El responso: Gravity is “just a theory!”

      In science, ‘theory’ denotes the most powerful/factually supported status an explanation can attain. And the scientific definition is less, “random hunch a dude-bro dreamed up while smoking a joint/while doing beer pong,” and more “comprehensive frameworks for describing, explaining, & making falsifiable predictions about related sets of phenomena based on rigorous observation, experimentation, and logic”
      (The scientific definitions I’m using are same as provided in the first video below.)

      As for the dudebros and folks loving broscience:

      They need to watch these. It will help their understanding a lot if they do so without getting bitchy/whiny/infantile about them. :3

      • I’m not sure what this is a reply to, ha, but I agree.

        • Oh, it was more or less just me ranting (a bit) at a pet peeve of mine. When I saw you write, “‘let’s try everything that sounds cool even if it’s just a theory without any empirical support.'” I felt like there was misuse of terms. Yes, I do know the word has different meanings, but I’ve seen creationists misuse that word so many times I simply refuse to use the colloquial definition anymore.

          And glad to know we’re both on the same page. :)

    • “Thanks, Bobby. There is research indicating that consuming your carbs mostly at the end of the day (PWO) is best.”
      Not sure if that conflicts with what you presented in the article here http://bayesianbodybuilding.com/optimized-workout-nutrition-carbs-protein-revisited/
      However, you *did* mention at the end of the day, rather than “within 30 minutes of your workout ‘cuz insulin, brah.”

      Along similar reasoning http://bayesianbodybuilding.com/workout-nutrition-is-a-scam/ seems to contradict this article as well, because of the Hoffman et al. (2009) (and two studies mentioned above that one) showing no difference whether the protein is consumed either right after or several hours after, a workout. Is there something I’m missing? As I suspect there is.

      • It’s important to distinguish nutrient timing relative to your circadian rhythm and nutrient timing relative to your workout here. The beneficial effect of having your carbs later in the day is mostly related to circadian rhythm effects of glucose metabolism and neurally mediated benefits for your sleep quality, not protein anabolism post-workout.

        • And I take it similar reasoning applies to protein as well.

          I still wonder why, in the studies presented in the “workout nutrition is a scam article,” the protein later in the day group in the study didn’t have better results than the protein immediately after workout group; when having the protein later in the studies presented in this article on CRPT did have better results. Do you know what that is?

          But then, as you yourself have said, a lot of the stuff being practiced (e.g. mini-meals, eating something right after a workout, etc) while not magic bullets, aren’t harmful either.

    • I recall you stating that fasted training in general isn’t a good idea. So what would be appropriate to eat (macro wise) before training? I’ve found something with some fat and protein–a can of sardines in olive oil in my case–tends to help, but I figured I’d ask for your input. Would it be better to just have fat before hand or to have protein and fat before a workout?

      • Protein is most important. A few carbs help some people, likely psychologically.

        • I also tend to have fat with mine–usually in the form of the olive oil that comes in with the sardines. But then, you have said that there is some evidence of fat boosting the effects of protein (and that it’s Okay to eat fats earlier) so I take it that’s good. Sweet, thanks. :)

    • Enrique Jackson says:

      Menno , is amino acid/ BCCAs ingestion necessary between meals to prevent catabolism?

    • Ken says:

      Hey menno,
      How would you go about using protein circadian rhythm timing to gain muscle and lose fat on a maintenance or slight (100-200kcal) “lean bulk.” Other than space protein in 3-5 meals and get a good % of daily protein at dinner in the hours before bed? Thanks in advance!

      • Fully customized nutrient timing, especially when it comes to circadian rhythms, is highly specific to the individual and his or her lifestyle I’m afraid. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

    • Jon says:

      Hey menno,
      What range of % of daily protein do you work with pre-bed?

    • bowflex says:

      I recall you stating that fasted training in general isn’t a good idea. So what would be appropriate to eat (macro wise) before training? I’ve found something with some fat and protein–a can of sardines in olive oil in my case–tends to help, but I figured I’d ask for your input. Would it be better to just have fat before hand or to have protein and fat before a workout?

    • Mark says:

      Hey Menno,
      Very interesting article! I was wondering if nutrient timing would matter for carbs too for similar reasons. Carbs cause an increase in insulin, which causes a decrease in growth hormone, and additionally, the insulin causes decreased fat burning. Does this mean carbs should be avoided at night? Or is the degree of this effect not significant?

    • Cal says:

      Hey Menno,

      I was wondering whether it’s a good idea to have a protein shake before bed everyday even if it goes over my macros for the day and I’m cutting?

      Thanks!

    • I really need to start getting into nutrition more. I keep gaining weight although I have been trying to eat healthier. I think maybe it has something to do with the time that I eat before going to bed. My friend said she doesn’t eat anything past seven and that helps her sleep better. I think I might try that.

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