Nutrition plays one of the most significant roles in the quest for optimum health, aesthetics and performance. By nutrition I don’t simply mean what you eat but also when. The when aspect of nutrition is often referred to as ‘nutrient timing’ and is a great way to control fat loss and either build or maintain lean muscle. Better food choices, portion control and timing are the most important aspect of a healthy and dynamic lifestyle, and that includes adequate intake of all macronutrients, including proteins, fats and carbohydrates.
All too often carbs are viewed as evil but if you understand when and how much to eat, they can be beneficial to your progress rather than the ‘fat-storing’ nutrients they are perceived to be.
There are three crucial times carbs should be consumed:
- First thing in the morning
If you eat dinner at 7pm and then rise at 6am, your body hasn’t been fuelled for 11 hours, so - while your body is regenerated from a good night’s sleep - it is in a catabolic state. Eating low-GI carbs will ensure you replenish your glycogen stores so you have a long and constant energy release, allowing you to avoid fatigue and cravings. What’s more, our brain uses about 25 per cent of total body glucose to function, so it’s important to reload glycogen stores after an overnight fast for optimal brain function(1). After a full night without any food the body is more sensitive to insulin. This means you need less insulin to absorb the glycogen and the risk of converting carbs into fat is much lower.
Optimally, it’s advisable to have about 0.5-0.7g of low-GI carbs per kilogram of body weight to restore the glycogen reserve after a night of fasting.
A pre-workout snack or meal is the second anabolic window that allows you to eat carbs with low risk of storage.
- If you train in the morning, it can sometimes be beneficial to train on an empty stomach to potentially enhance your body’s utilisation of fat as energy but there’s also the risk of your body burning valuable muscle. It varies for everyone, so it’s important to determine whether exercising on an empty stomach does or doesn’t work for your body. If you’re concerned about burning muscle due to your fasted state, wake up a bit earlier and have some high-GI carbohydrates before training. The carbs should also give you the extra energy kick you need to get the most out of your training.
- If you train after work it’s important to consume about 0.5g of protein and 0.5g of high-GI carbs per kilogram of your target body weight 60-90 minutes before your session (7). Within 30 minutes before beginning your workout, it’s a good idea to have a snack that’s easily digestible containing about 0.5g of protein and 0.5g of low-GI carbs per kilogram of your target tody weight (7). This can assist in lack of energy and help to improve your overall performance.
Choose fast-absorbing (high-GI) carbs and proteins immediately before exercise so they will be quickly absorbed, allowing your body to receive the full nutrient benefits rapidly. If proteins are not absorbed quickly, the amino acid won’t be able to efficiently assume its duty of repairing and re-synthesising the muscles. The other thing to integrate into this equation is the fact that exercising prevents a sharp insulin response resulting in little risk of storing carbs as fat during your workout.
This is the third and most important anabolic window to consume carbs without risk of fat storage but to also have the best recovery possible. Exercise increases our cells susceptibility to insulin and assists the glucose absorption by cells. A rise of insulin as well as better cell responsiveness creates perfect conditions for glycogen to enter the muscles with little possibility of it being stored as fat. Post-workout is the ideal time to consume low-GI (slow absorbing) carbs.
Technically, your body re-synthesises glycogen in the six hours following training, so you may think there is no rush to consume the carbohydrates but studies have shown the importance of eating carbs within 20-30 minutes following your training(2). This short anabolic window is crucial for an effective recovery.
Just after training, the body can start to break down muscles to get the amino acids it needs to regenerate damaged tissues and increase the hormonal concentration. Therefore, for the most effective recovery you shouldadd protein to your carbs post-workout (3). About 0.5g of protein and 0.5-1.0g of carbs per kilogram of your target body weight is a good guideline (7). So if you want to master your recovery, I advise you to have another snack/meal with low-GI carbs, proteins and also some good fats in the following 2.5 hours after your post-workout intake. Fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6 play a major role in nitrogen retention, so don’t hesitate to add some salmon or flaxseed oil to your meals and snacks.
What carbs you eat is as important as how much and when. Eating the right carbs at the right time is the royal path for better adaptations after an intense session. This allows you to train harder and improve week after week without losing your confidence or motivation.
There is no magic trick when it comes to training or nutrition. Remember, the basics and being consistent are your keys to success. A strong training stimulus and a perfect recovery are what matter, and implementing all the different aspects at the same time will ensure you have more results and stay motivated all year long. It will also allow you to treat yourself sometimes without hurting your conscience and your scales!
High-GI foods (6):
Foods with a GI of 70 or more are considered high-GI. These foods are best consumed prior to a workout as the carbohydrates are broken down and released as glucose into the blood stream quickly, resulting in a raise of insulin and fast energy. An example of high-GI foods are:
- Processed breads and wraps such as white and wholemeal
- Processed whole grains such as white and Jasmine rice, and white pasta
- White potatoes
- Baked goods such as cakes, biscuits and scones
- Many breakfast cereals such as Coco Pops, Cornflakes, Rice Bubbles and Fruity-Bix
- Many soft and sports drinks
Low-GI foods (6):
Foods with a GI of 55 or less are considered low-GI. These foods should make up the majority of your carbohydrate intake as the glucose is released into the blood stream gradually, ensuring steady blood sugar levels and a constant flow of energy. Some examples of low-GI foods are:
- Whole fruit such as apples, apricots, mangoes, oranges, peaches, pears and berries
- Whole grains such as barley, rye, bran, oats, brown rice, buckwheat and quinoa
- Unprocessed breads and wraps such as whole wheat, sourdough and rye
- Vegetables such as corn, butternut pumpkin,
- Legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, kidney, mung and soya beans
- Unsweetened milk and yoghurt
(1) Magistretti, P, Pellerin, L and Martin, JL, ‘Brain energy metabolism’ American College of Neuropsychopharmacology,
(2) Ivy, J et Al, ‘Muscle glycogen synthesis after exercise: effect of time of carbohydrate ingestion’
(3) Ivy J et Al, ‘Early post exercise muscle glycogen recovery is enhanced with a carbohydrate-protein supplement’, Journal of Applied Physiology, <http://jap.physiology.org/content/93/4/1337>
(4) Poliquin Group 2009, ‘Poliquin’s Top 10 Carb Intake Rules for Optimal Body Composition’,
(5) ‘Carbohydrate – The Facts’, Australian Institute of Sport Nutrition, viewed May 5 2014, <http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/factsheets/basics/carbohydrate__how_much>
(6) ‘Search for the Glycemic Index’, The University of Sydney,
(7) ‘Pre- and post-workout meal – What to eat before and after working out’, A Calorie Counter,
Aurélien Apport is a French elite athlete and international judo competitor with over 25 years of practice. He has a black belt in Judo and Jujitsu and is a certified personal trainer and coach. Aurélientrains both general fitness and high level athletes, and has been doing so in various countries around the world for 15 years.
Now located in Bondi, Aurélien trains clients outside, at their homes or in the gym, specialising in martial arts, kickboxing, judo, ju-jitsu, weight loss, strength and conditioning, Olympic lifting, power lifting and tailored nutritional programs.