Time your nutrition right and perform at your best with ‘functional eating’, says Dr Robert Portman

Triathlon nutritionOne of most significant findings in sports science was the discovery of the post-exercise recovery interval. Researchers demonstrated that in the 45 minutes after exercise, the metabolic pathways responsible for repairing, rebuilding and replenishing muscle cells were in a heightened state of activity. Consuming the right combination of carbohydrate and protein during this time vastly improved the quality and speed of muscle recovery.

These findings have dramatically changed the post-workout nutrition regimen of endurance athletes around the world and also raised the intriguing possibility that during the day there are other intervals when nutrient intake can be used to gain specific benefits from meeting the body’s immediate metabolic needs. This is indeed the case.

The key pathways responsible for controlling appetite, converting food into energy, reducing metabolic stress and building muscle mass are not constantly set to the on position. To the contrary, each of these pathways has a unique metabolic rhythm that is programmed into our DNA.

Anyone who has ever travelled through multiple time zones and felt the effects of sleeplessness, disorientation and loss of appetite is familiar with the circadian rhythm – our internal clock.

What most athletes don’t realise is that this circadian rhythm also controls the metabolic pathways that determine our fitness level. Once you understand how each of these pathways is programmed you can adjust the nutritional composition of your meals to allow these pathways to work in an ultra-efficient mode. This is the core principle of a new concept called ‘functional eating’.

Conventional eating plans assume the body’s metabolic needs are fixed, so all you have to be concerned with is consuming a healthy ratio of carbohydrate, protein and fat over a 24-hour period. That is simply not the case and is metabolically counterproductive. For example, consuming a high-protein meal when energy needs are greatest will accelerate muscle fatigue.

Functional eating recognises and exploits our changing metabolic needs over the course of the day. Consuming the right combination of nutrients at the right time will give you more energy, reduce your metabolic stress, increase production of lean body mass and help you maintain your weight.

Dr Portman is a renowned sports scientist whose books include Hardwired for Fitness and Nutrient Timing. He also edited the Performance Nutrition Handbook, Second Edition, which is available for free download from pacifichealthlabs.com.

Make it work for you: break down your nutrient intake with these guidelines

  1. The ideal breakfast is 80% carbs and 20% protein. This ratio reduces cortisol levels and replenishes muscle energy stores after sleeping.
  2. Eat high-carb foods between 9am-1pm to ensure muscles and brain have sufficient energy, then decrease carb consumption after this.
  3. Consume 55% of your daily calories by 1pm to keep your energy intake in step with the body’s energy needs and avoid afternoon binging.
  4. Protein turnover is most active between 5-8pm as during this period the body is not competing with pathways responsible for generating energy.
  5. Minimise fat intake during the day, but increase healthy (mainly plant) fat intake in the evening to keep you full between dinner and bedtime.