Just like with nutrition, there is a lot of misinformation when it comes to nutrient timing. For example, many people believe that it is better to eat a larger number of small meals in the hope that this will increase metabolism; however, research shows there is no metabolic advantage of eating six meals a day over three.
Additionally, mainstream advice tells us to eat simple carbs before exercise for “fuel.” This completely overlooks how the human body operates during exercise. Unlike a car that runs on gasoline, during physical activity, your body uses glycogen, which is stored inside the cells of the muscle and liver. It takes the body hours to digest carbs and synthesize glycogen, so eating a bagel with honey pre-workout does nothing but spike blood sugar and insulin right at the time that you want these bad boys to be holding steady.
The good news is that by getting nutrient timing right, it’s possible to lose weight (or avoid gaining it), optimize your physical performance, and improve your health so you avoid diabetes and other metabolic diseases. What follows are ten nutrient timing tips you can adopt today.
#1: Eat Protein For Breakfast
Research shows most people are eating too much protein at the wrong times. Namely, we need more high-quality protein at breakfast and less at dinner.
Spreading protein out over the course of the day will keep you more satiated and help you make better food choices so that you don’t overshoot your calorie needs. Another reason protein for breakfast is a must is that it gives your muscles their first chance to rebuild after going 10 to 12 hours without food.
#2: Eat Fewer Meals
Unless you are a body builder trying to put on as much mass as possible, choosing a lower frequency of 2 to 4 meals a day will improve digestion by giving your GI tract a chance to rest. Food-free time is important for gut motility, which occurs once digestion is finished and the muscles of the GI tract stretch and contract, enabling food to progress through the intestines, while at the same time, ensuring absorption of nutrients.
#3: Eat At Consistent Times
Think about your regular schedule and you’ll notice that you tend to do certain things at the same time every day: You go to bed, wake up, feel hungry, and experience an afternoon lull at the same time.. This is due to our circadian function, or biorhythm, which is controlled by a “clock” called the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the brain. Food is a primary regulator of your body’s clock, which means that eating at consistent times can improve circadian function and help ease other activities, including sleep, waking up in the morning, digestion, and stress management.
#4: Plan Meals At Least 4 Hours Apart
Frequent meals have a lot of drawbacks:
They impede the circadian function of metabolic organs like the liver (which runs on a 4-hour clock) and the pancreas.
They keep blood sugar and insulin elevated, never allowing the body to shift into fat burning mode.
They reduce levels of fat burning enzymes, impairing metabolic flexibility or the ability to use both glucose and fat for energy.
They are inconvenient, taking a lot of time that could be used for other things.
Choosing a lower meal frequency (2 to 4 meals a day) and eating about every 4 hours can allow you to prevent excessive hunger, while avoiding the negative metabolic effects of chronic eating.
#5: Eat During Daylight
How often do you skip meals all day and then eat everything in your kitchen after dark when you get home?
Eating the majority of your calories at night is associated with obesity and metabolic disorders like diabetes because it hampers circadian function and hormone release. Think about our ancestors—they hunted, gathered, and ate during daylight, fasting from dusk til dawn.
Adopting a similar pattern can even aid with weight loss: One study found that when overweight volunteers ate the majority of their calories earlier in the day (700 calories at breakfast, 500 at lunch, and only 200 at dinner) they lost more weight more than a group that had the opposite eating pattern (200 calories at breakfast, 500 at lunch, and 700 at dinner).
#6: Use a 10- to 12-Hour Eating Window
Recent studies show that the average person is eating their entire waking day, with most people noshing over the course of 15 hours. Not only does this constant eating disrupt circadian function, it leads to greater calorie intake and worse metabolic health.
Animal studies show that shortening the feeding time to less than 12 hours can prevent fat gain even when subjects are fed obesity-inducing high-fat, high-sugar diets. Human studies suggest something similar (although you should strive for a healthy, low-sugar diet), with optimal eating windows varying between 8 and 12 hours a day.
#7: Time Your Carbohydrates
When you feel snacky, you probably reach for carb-rich foods like crackers, chips, sweets, etc. Carbs are rewarding, leading to a dopamine hit in the brain that makes you feel good. Unfortunately, this tendency can impair circadian function and throw metabolic hormones out of whack.
A better solution is to limit intake of higher carb foods to post-workout and dinner. After exercise your muscles are ready to store glycogen, whereas at dinner, carbs, especially grains and beans, will raise serotonin a calming neurotransmitter that has a relaxing effect and can be used to synthesize the sleep hormone, melatonin, so that you get a restful night’s sleep.
#8: Eat Antioxidant-Rich Plants At Every Meal
Phytonutrient-rich foods, such as brightly colored fruits and vegetables, processes biological activities that influence circadian rhythms and counter inflammation that harms cells and DNA. Animal protein and refined carbs are both inflammatory (animal protein in the gut and carbs via how they impact insulin and blood sugar), and including antioxidant-rich foods can strategically counteract the oxidative stress caused by these foods.
For example, cherries lower cortisol and increase production of melatonin for better sleep. Both bananas and coffee raise the mood-boosting serotonin, but consuming caffeine later in the day can impair circadian function and dysregulate clock genes. Therefore, coffee should be consumed in the morning, whereas bananas can be eaten at anytime for mood-raising effects. Other antioxidant-rich foods that can improve circadian function are watermelon, tomatoes, grapes, berries, leafy greens, and almonds.
#9: Eat Post-Workout
Consuming a larger proportion of your energy intake after physical activity will encourage the nutrients to be partitioned favorably: In simple terms, this means that your muscles are ready to take carbohydrates and synthesize glycogen for storage instead of storing those calories as fat. Additionally, high-quality protein will provide the amino acids that stimulate protein synthesis for tissue repair and recovery. There is also evidence that after exercise nutrients are absorbed better, so that you get more nutrition out of your meal.
#10: Include Protein At Every Meal
Although there are benefits to front-loading protein, it’s crucial that you include at least 20 grams of high-quality protein at every meal. Not only will this keep protein synthesis humming, but studies show that protein can improve sleep, especially when you choose white meats or dairy-based proteins at night that will allow more tryptophan to enter the brain for a restful night.