Oh the ongoing battle with all the literature out there sending conflicting messages about Timing of our food intake…
If we don’t eat breakfast, are we doomed?
If we eat less than 3 hrs before bed, are we destined for obesity?
What about working out – will you have insomnia if you work out within 2 hrs of going to bed? Will you crash before mid-morning if you wake up early to get your calisthenics in?
It seems like the infamous “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” conundrum but alas there is hope.
I’m going to share with you the short-hand science behind these various arguments to help you decide which lifestyle is best for you and your unique circumstance.
Most Important Meal – or Snooze Button Steal?
Breakfast. The word is actually a compound word made from “break” and “fast”; it is thus named because, theoretically, you should be sleeping 8 hrs a night and eating every 4 hrs or so during the day therefore making your sleeping hrs the longest period of time you go without food; an intentional period of time without food is often referred to as a “fast” so the first meal after you wake you are in essence “breaking” said fast.
Herein lies the science behind the claim that Breakfast is the most important meal of the day: When your body is at rest your metabolism is going at a slower rate than when you are awake and active. Food, or more importantly the calories in food, is the catalyst your body needs to rev up your metabolism. If you wait until lunchtime to eat your body has stayed in a low metabolic phase for upwards of 14 hrs and [depending on other factors like age and gender] it may go into Starvation Mode* – meaning an even slower metabolic rate because it is not sure when or if it is getting food. Once a body in Starvation Mode gets food, it does not necessarily kick that metabolism up a notch, more frequently, it grabs those calories and stores them for energy during the next starvation period [which we have now told our bodies is possible because it just had one].
The short-hand science, then, is that skipping Breakfast is a bad idea because over time it can cause very irregular metabolic rates for people and make it much more challenging to lose weight and keep it off.
Wake and Break [a sweat] ?
I am a big proponent of both breakfast and morning workouts and make the following recommendation to my clients: I mentioned above in the science behind Breakfast that the main tenant of the argument is revving up your metabolic rate.
Now, there is something else other than food that is capable of elevating metabolic rate and that is exercise – it doesn’t have to be running or other intense cardio [more power to you if you can go from Dreamland to Gym Rat in 10 mins but it is not necessary for improving efficiency of metabolism], it can be basically anything that gets your heart rate increased above resting rate for about 25 sustained mins. Instead of spending 25 mins hitting snooze, stalking people on Social Media, and calling your morning coffee “breakfast”, I propose that you wake up and use that 25 mins to do some yoga or pilates, go for a walk [take a small flashlight if its dark], do some jumping jacks and pushups, or even get the sweeping and vacuuming done [yes, household chores burn calories].
Once you have completed activity of choice, have a breakfast of about 300 or 400 calories. Make sure to include a Simple carb for immediate energy, a Complex carb for sustained energy, Fiber for fullness, and Protein for muscle repair. This sounds much more difficult than it is. For instance, a breakfast that meets all those components could be a quick smoothie with 1 cup skim milk/yogurt, some ice, and a fruit of your choice – bananas are great because they are a perfect combination of simple carb, complex carb, and fiber.
Not a smoothie or a fruit-in-the-morning fan? Not a problem. Have two eggs anyway you like them and get your simple and complex carb along with your fiber from a piece of whole wheat or gluten free toast with natural preserve or a half cup of oatmeal with 2 tsps honey or agave syrup [Stevia ® or the like if you are Diabetic.]
Eating within 30 mins of your workout will not only get metabolism revved up but will keep it elevated for up to 2 hrs afterwards as you have just given your body an additional task to now digest food and it must keep chugging along in order to do so.
Second Wind – or Zen Killer ?
Now, let’s address night time. I’ve long been a proponent of working out any time of day versus none at all – however, if you do struggle with extreme Insomnia, elevating heart rate within 60 mins of going to bed could be detrimental to helping your body achieve the relaxation it needs to fall asleep quickly.
However, for most everyone else, occasional Insomnia strugglers included, participating in exercise at any time of day wears your body out [think of the age-old tactic of taking the kids to the park and letting them run around so they sleep like babies at night – believe it or not, same tactic works for adults.
Bottom line, unless you struggle with chronic, relentless insomnia and have seriously examined all other potential contributing factors [i.e. medication dependence, consumption of nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, anxiety, extraneous stimuli from use of technological devices in bedroom] or you are doing an intense aerobics class then coming home and jumping right in bed and wondering why it takes your body a while to fall asleep, exercising in the evening time is not a threat to sleep and has more evidence behind it to support that it helps facilitate good sleep and even reduce anxiety by offering an outlet after you get off from work – i.e. sweating your day out – so that you can relax and allow your Body and Mind to refresh itself for a new day.
Night Cap – or Belt Buster?
As far as eating after dinner goes, this is a VERY complex situation that involves a series of X factors and needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case level where the individuals’ preference and goals are taken into consideration.
However, for the purpose of this article, I merely want to explore with you some of those factors and the short-hand science behind certain reasoning. The reason that many weight loss gurus argue against eating later at night is because, as mentioned in the Breakfast section, the body in resting mode has a slow metabolic rate and will not burn off access calories, but will instead store them, making it a challenge to lose weight. This is still true – however it doesn’t account for the fact that sleep is also the time when the body seeks to repair itself most extensively [i.e. cells breakdown and regenerate, muscle fibers and tissues connect and rewire all based on the day’s activities]. In order for efficient repair, the body needs an active energy supply [about 250 calories of sustainable energy] and this is most readily produced by having a snack before bed that is part Complex carb and part easily digestible Protein. Prime examples could include: an apple with a spoonful of peanut butter, veggies and hummus, or Greek yogurt with a handful of raw nuts.
Now, if your ultimate goal is to lose as much weight as fast as possible and you don’t care about preserving lean muscle [NEVER my recommendation, but I promised I would educate, not judge…] feel free to stop eating 5 or 6 hrs before bed but you are doing your body a disservice and raising the risk that you will eat mindlessly in the middle of the night. It is important to give your body what it needs to build the body you want.
A few more points of consideration on this topic:
Ideally you should eat every four hours – so, if you eat dinner and are up for 4+ hrs, then yes I do recommend to my clients that they have a snack like listed above.
If, however, you struggle with compulsive or overeating issues, and feel you could not limit yourself to 250 calories and it is easier to just go to bed, please contact myself or other mental health professional to talk through that emotional piece.
If you are in the habit of eating dinner late and usually go to bed within 2-3 hrs of dinner, make sure your dinner is appropriate based on your activity level during the day. For example, if you were mostly sedentary aim for a dinner around the 450 calorie mark and make sure the food is lower in carbs. Smart choices here can include a single starch such as a half cup of roast potatoes [skins cleaned and left on, olive or flaxseed oil and spices for flavoring] with a lean meat or fish, 2 cups of veggies, and a glass of red wine to assist in digestion. If you were moderately to very active, feel free to aim as high as 650 calories. I recommend the same meal components as listed for the 450 calories meal but perhaps give license for additional starch serving, extra condiments or sauces on the meat, or even a second glass of wine.
For those completely adverse to calorie counting, reach out to me and I can give you a few tricks of the trade to help figure out how many calories are in your current meals.
* While I understand we are not culturally prone to famines, it must be understood that biologically, our bodies have not caught up to this fact. Therefore Starvation Mode as far as our bodies understand it is a period of time, typically anything over 12 hrs where no calories [the energy molecules in food] are consumed.