What you eat is a crucial part of how effective your nutrition will be in helping you achieve your fitness goals. But did you know when you eat might be even more important?
Bodybuilding season is here and potential competitors will be trying to ramp up their diets for the final stages of their transformations — if this is you, be sure to get in touch with Toby at NUTRISHOP for some contest prep! Diets have to be on-point, with every calorie serving a purpose, and every meal timed for the maximum benefit.
But even if you’re not doing a bodybuilding or figure show, you can apply proper food timing to your own diet and see the results. This week we’re going to break down the importance of each meal — breakfast, snacks, pre- and post-workout meals, lunch, dinner and pre-sleep — and show why each one requires more thought than just grabbing the first thing you see when you crack open the fridge.
Follow this blog throughout the week as we update it!
First up, the “most important meal of the day”: Breakfast. Your body has been deprived of nutrients and water for 7-8 hours. Your blood sugar is likely at its lowest point throughout an entire 24-hour cycle, meaning your metabolism is turning to alternate sources for energy — its preference is muscle tissue over body fat. And your muscles have gone 1/3 of the day without any protein or amino acids, depleting the body’s supply while you slept for recovery.
And yet, how many people wake up and simply cram some coffee and a bagel, or even worse, skip breakfast entirely?
Breakfast needs to serve two purposes: Refueling and pre-fueling. You need a high-quality protein source to replenish the body’s nitrogen stores for muscle-building and recovery, and for fighting catabolism, and a slow-burning carbohydrate to provide lasting energy for the day. Even a bit of simple sugar is beneficial in the morning, when consumed with protein, for the anabolic insulin spike it can provide. This is why an ideal breakfast would be 5-6 eggs, with two being whites only, a bowl of oatmeal (no pre-packaged stuff — it’s loaded with artificial flavorings and sugar) and a handful of berries with a glass of milk. Add a vegetable for even more balance in this meal — some spinach in an omelet, for example.
The “when” here is important — it is literally as soon as possible after waking. To help cover the gap between cooking and consuming, go with a quick BCAA drink as soon as you wake up, then have breakfast.
Snacks: Don’t misread this as “junk food” — small mini-meals throughout the day between your larger meals are a great way to keep yourself anabolic and maintain a steady nutrient supply. Many people think of snacks as chips, candy or other sweets, all poor choices for one trying to lose body fat (i.e., a bodybuilding competitor!) because they discourage the metabolism’s use of it for energy.
About every three hours, you should be trying to eat something — possibly more, depending on your goals — and it should always have some protein with it. A great option is a couple of string cheeses, a handful of almonds or walnuts, a few slices of high-quality lunch meat or, for extreme convenience, a protein shake. The idea is to keep your body out of its “fat-saving” starvation mode by not letting it assume it’s going hungry. When it does that, it clings to body fat like a life preserver, because it is the slowest-burning energy it can get.
Generally, you also want to stay away from carb-heavy foods for snacks, especially if you have had them for breakfast. Eating oatmeal early in the day is great, because it provides slow-burning energy that will last, but you defeat the purpose when you eat a faster-burning carb (even a healthy one, like a piece of fruit) before lunch.
Ideally, a snack would have both protein, fiber and some healthy fat — again, almonds fit in perfectly to that profile, all in one food. You can also mix and match: A protein shake with some peanut butter and ground flax seed; a serving of black beans; some cottage cheese and some low-glycemic berries like raspberries or blueberries; even beef jerky is a surprisingly adequate protein source between meals.
Pre- and Post-Workout Eating: These two meal timing windows are arguably the most critical ones (aside from breakfast) you’ll account for during the day if you are trying to build muscle and lose body fat.
Under the stress and exhaustive energy use of a workout, your body undergoes dramatic changes as it seeks more energy sources. It burns through its preferred source, sugars, very quickly, then taps into slow-burning carbs, before it starts to target fat. And as you exercise, especially with resistance training, microscopic tears in the muscle fibers start the muscle-building process — only if those fibers are repaired and grow stronger. How you fuel with food before and after your workouts plays a huge role in determining your results.
Pre-workout, your goals will shape what your meal plans look like. If you are trying to burn body fat, you want as few calories (a unit of energy) as possible, to force your body to look within its own tissues for energy instead. To that end, a pre-workout BCAA shake is an excellent option; if you are actually hungry, a small high-protein snack is recommended (a half protein shake, for example). Steer clear of carbohydrates — they will serve only as a buffer protecting the fat cells you’re trying to burn.
If you are trying to add some mass, you want to overload the muscles with nutrients, protein and calories, so there is the most rapid recovery possible. A pre-workout Mass Fuzion shake with BCAAs or protein, or Gainer7, is a surefire way to make sure there’s plenty of quality calories providing for the muscles as you tear them down with your workout.
The post-workout window is more or less similar, regardless of goal: No more than 15-20 minutes after your workout, you should consume at least 30 grams of high-quality protein (whey shake, lean chicken, etc.), plenty of water and, ideally, a glutamine or BCAA supplement for optimum recovery. Extra calories and carbohydrates are recommended if mass gain is your goal — a good carb source, like a yam or oatmeal, is recommended on top of a small amount of another high-glycemic sugar, like a couple tablespoons of honey or a half cup of white rice. Alternately, a gainer shake addresses all those caloric needs.
Midday meals: Lunch, brunch, whatever you call it — it should serve a purpose beyond just eating with your coworkers or friends. When you stop thinking of food as socializing and start considering it as fuel, that’s when you make great diet choices! Assuming you’ve followed all our advice through this blog up to this point, you should be getting enough early-morning and post-workout carbohydrates to give you slow-burning energy throughout the day, so a carb-heavy lunch is not beneficial (unless you are trying to add serious muscle mass fast).
Pasta, pizza, sandwiches and other carbs are popular lunch choices, but not always the best ones. Whole wheat or brown rice options improve them a bit, but it’s missing the point — if you’re trying to drop body fat, you want to make your metabolism search for different energy sources within your body instead of constantly providing it easily accessible carbs to burn.
That said, a protein, fat and vegetable should form the foundation of your lunch — a spinach or mixed-greens salad mixed with a can of tuna and a Balsamic vinaigrette; some chopped chicken breast with black beans, cheese and salsa; etc. What you eat specifically is up to you — just remember to get a clean protein source, a healthy fat and, if at all possible, vegetables.
If you are trying to put on weight, your rules are less stringent — sandwiches are perfectly convenient sources of calories, but we still warn to stay away from white breads. Go for 100 percent whole wheat, or, even better, Ezekiel-brand natural breads — the closer to natural form, the better. Load it up with cold cuts, cheese (Swiss has the most protein) and some veggies, but steer clear from condiments like mayonnaise. Even a PBJ, assuming you use natural peanut butter (ingredients are just peanuts and salt) and pure-fruit jelly on whole wheat, is a suitable option when paired with a protein shake or a few hard-boiled eggs.
Evening Eating:Your carbs should taper down toward the end of the day if you’re trying to burn body fat, so ideally at dinner time you’d skip the traditional potato, pasta or bread dish and just sub in another vegetable. Those trying to gain weight can still include a slow-burning carbohydrate — yams are perfect, but brown rice or quinoa are fine too — but still, you should try to stay away from white potatoes or breads.
Your main course should always be a lean protein source, whether it’s a lean cut of beef, chicken, fish, bison or, if you don’t eat meat, beans and legumes. Pair this with a side of vegetables, or even two. It’s important to get enough fiber and protein in your late meals, because you are preparing for an eight-hour fast. Consistent meal planning can even help establish more consistent sleep patterns, as your body acclimates to a schedule.
Late-night snacks are hard to avoid, too. Often, we want to spring for desserts, and once in a while (once a week as a cheat, perhaps) is permissible. Just don’t get into the habit of having ice cream or cake EVERY night. Instead, before you go to sleep, try a half cup of cottage cheese with some pure-fruit jam, or some string cheese with some grapes. Dairy proteins are slower-absorbing and perfect before bed, and provide a “slow protein drip” of sorts to the body as you sleep.