There’s been a lot of attention in recent years concerning the best foods and supplements to consume before, during, and after a workout. Before tackling the challenge of nutrient timing, make certain you are eating a healthy dinner. After all, this is the meal that is, for most of us, the largest meal of the day.
The first question you should ask yourself about dinner is, “How does this meal fit into my entire nutritional profile?” For most of us, the answer is not very well. Consider that in their Dietary Guidelines, 2015-2020, US government researchers found that approximately 75 percent of Americans did not consume the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables but they all exceeded their recommendations for added sugar, saturated fats, and sodium. Then there is the matter of calories.
The government report suggests that overconsumption of calories should be associated with the increasing rates of overweight and obesity in this country. Specifically, 65 percent of adult females and 73 percent of adult males are overweight or obese, and approximately 33 percent of youths between 2-19 years of age are overweight or obese. The obvious solution is that if dinner is the largest meal of the day, and we are eating too much, it’s especially important to consume fewer calories at this time. Well, maybe not.
Yes, consuming too many calories for your energy level can make you fat, but it’s also important to look at macronutrient levels. For this, consider the results of a unique study on overfeeding (yes, overfeeding) published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010.
After going on a “weight-stabilizing diet” for several weeks, the subjects split into three groups and were put on diets that contained 40 percent more calories than the weight stabilization diet. The difference between the three diets was the percentages of protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
All three groups had approximately the same carbohydrate intake, 41 percent. The difference was the protein intake: one group took in 6 percent of their total calories from protein; the second, 15 percent; and the third, 26 percent. After eight weeks – surprise! – everyone got fat. But the big takeaway was that the high protein group gained more muscle mass than the other two groups, and this muscle mass also increased the number of calories the subjects burned at rest (resting metabolic rate, or RMR). In fact, the low protein group’s RMR decreased by two percent—again, this part of the study lasted just two months!
It follows that the best way to improve body composition would be to keep your protein and fat high, and your carbs low. That said, many factors influence protein needs, such as your lean body mass, physical activity, and age.
For most of the US population, the United States Department of Agriculture says that .9 grams of protein per kilo (2.2 pounds) of bodyweight per day meet the recommended dietary allowance. However, it’s also been found that for athletes, especially during periods of intense training, 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilo of bodyweight may be optimal.
Another important point to consider is that rather than trying to follow an exact ratio of the big three for every meal, consuming more carbs at dinner can help lower the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn can help you sleep. It follows that consuming more carbs in the morning could cause drowsiness throughout the day.
Equally important as the number of carbs you eat is the type of carbs you eat. If you consume carbs in the form of processed sugar, you can create hormonal responses that will encourage your body to store fat. To learn more about the science of sugar overload and how it relates to body composition, check out Gary Taubes book, The Case Against Sugar.
How much sugar is it safe to consume? According to the American Heart Association, men should consume no more than 36 grams of sugar a day (150 calories) and women 25 grams (100 calories). The range for children is 12-25 grams, depending on their age and gender. How are we doing as a country? Ah, not good. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that the average American consumes 82 grams of this “white death” a day, which adds up to about 66 pounds a year.
With this background, here are four general guidelines to consider when planning your evening meal:
1. Keep your protein high and your carbs low. Good sources of protein are salmon, beef, chicken, bison, turkey, and eggs.
2. Make healthy fats your friend. Whole eggs, seeds, nuts, avocados, olive oil, even dark chocolate – add these to your shopping list.
3. Load up on vegetables. This high-fiber carb choice decreases the blood sugar response and is high in immune-system building antioxidants. Green leafy vegetables are especially good sources of antioxidants.
4. Avoid processed sugar. This warning includes beverages -- washing down a healthy dinner of salmon, sweet potatoes, and broccoli with soda pop is a case of “two steps forward, one step back.”
Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, but for optimal health, also be certain to take a closer look at what’s for dinner.