Nutrition is Easy as 1, 2, 3!
As a Precision Nutrition Coach, I’m always looking for ways to make healthy eating as simple as possible for our gym members. In our Best Life Challenge meetings we talk quite a bit about nutrition, and I’ve shared with the team members that the decisions we make about food really come down to the “Big 3″:
- What to eat
- How much to eat
- When to eat
The importance of those three is in the order shown – what and how much to eat take priority over when to eat. However, I’ve noticed through a lot of the questions I’ve been getting lately, that the “when” category seems to be causing some confusion, and even some controversy, resulting in the focus being pulled away from the “what” and “how much”. The “what” and “how much” are actually simpler, so let’s talk about those first.
#1 – WHAT TO EAT:
- Protein, which is found in meats, fish, dairy, eggs, tofu, beans and legumes. Nuts and seeds also contain protein, but are primarily a fat.
- Non-starchy vegetables and fruit.
- Healthy fats found in avocados, nuts, seeds, olives and olive oil, and Omega 3s found in fish and fish oil/sea algae supplements.
- Whole grains like rice, oats, corn, quinoa and starchy carbs like potatoes and sweet potatoes.
#2 – HOW MUCH TO EAT:
- Protein – A portion is a palm size (not including the fingers) or 3-4 ounces, or 20-30 grams. Smaller ladies should have one portion every meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner) and men, larger people and very active people should have two servings.
- Vegetables and fruit – A portion is a fist size, which is about the size of a medium apple, or 1/2 a cup of chopped veggies. For leafy greens, this would be about two fists, or 1 cup. Aim for 2-3 servings at each meal, or 6-9 throughout the day. Veggies should make up the majority of these servings, and 1-2 serving can be fruit.
- Fats – A portion is about the size of your thumb, which is around 1-1 1/2 tablespoons, or around 7-12 grams. That’s around 10 large or 20 small nuts for a serving, or 1 tbsp of olive oil on your salad. Aim for 1-2 servings a meal.
- Whole grains and starchy carbohydrates- A portion for smaller ladies is 1/2 a fist or a cupped hand, which is about 1/2 a cup cooked grains, or 20-30 grams of carbs. For men, larger people and very active people, the portion size is 1 fist, which is about 1 cup, or 40-60 grams of carbs. How many servings a day? Insert the world’s most frustrating answer here: It depends.
If you have a fat loss goal, you will likely need to need to minimize your intake of starchy carbs. You may be able to see results in having 1 or even 2 servings of these types of carbohydrates everyday, depending on how well your body processes carbs, and how many “splurges” you are having during the week. Yep, this starchy carb group contains anything from brown rice and quinoa to breads, pastas, desserts, and of course those liquid carbs. If you have a mass building goal or you are a high level endurance athlete, you will likely need to eat more carbs in a day, and may need to include these at each meal.
It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway – you will obviously get more nutritional benefit from foods that are less processed (like whole grains), so more processed foods like bagels and cookies should be occasional treats only (no, occasional is not every night as a reward for getting through the day). Whether you have a fat loss, or mass building goal, we generally recommend having these types of carbs 1-3 hours following an intense training session. Your body is able to process these type of carbs more quickly in a post-workout window, which is important for fat loss because your body will use more of this energy rather than store it. It also has a big benefit for mass building as your body will be able to utilize that energy to help rebuild muscle tissue quickly.
What if you can’t time your starchy carb intake during a post workout window? Ok, let’s talk about #3 – WHEN TO EAT.
As I explained above, there is definitely some science to support that your body processes carbs differently a couple of hours following a training session, so I won’t say it doesn’t matter at all. But, if you train in the morning, and you enjoy having a bowl of oatmeal prior to training instead of after training, that’s probably not going to sabotage your fat loss goals provided you are not also loading up on carbs the rest of the day. Here are a few more examples when it comes to food timing:
- Eating a meal or snack every 3-4 hours – We typically recommend most of our members try this method when they are first starting out making nutritional changes. For most of us, if we go longer stretches without eating, we are likely to find ourselves in an extreme hunger zone when we may over-eat, or make less than ideal choices at our next meal. But that’s not always true for everyone. Some people do just fine without snacks in between meals if they are eating slightly larger portions at breakfast, lunch and dinner. And some people do better eating smaller meals and including small snacks in between. Examine what feels right for you by developing your appetite awareness. When you eat, only eat to 80% full since it takes about 20 minutes for your sense of satiety to kick in. If you keep eating until you feel full, you are likely to feel over-stuffed 20 minutes later. In between meals, gauge your appetite on a scale of 1 – 10, with 1 being totally full, and 10 being so starving you are going through the first drive through you find and ordering everything on the menu. Somewhere from 4 – 6 hours in between meals you should find yourself at a 6 – 7 on the scale, which is pretty hungry, but not so starving you are going to binge.
- What about intermittent fasting? Yes, there are some people who do really well with fasting for most of the day and eating only during a 4-6 hour window. The trick however, is that IF isn’t about skipping meals and getting results just by reducing your calories. You need to still be paying attention to the “what” and “how much”. Your food choices and portion sizes should basically follow the above recommendations as if you were spreading the meals out during the day. Anything else is just using outdated low-calorie crash dieting disguised as a modern health trend that will eventually lead to metabolic disaster and regaining lost weight. (Yes, that last sentence is dramatic on purpose… you can read it again if you like!)
- What about training on an empty stomach? There is some research that shows a benefit to training fasted, but that’s not for everybody. You want to be able to challenge yourself appropriately during your training sessions, so you may need to experiment with how much to eat prior to a workout. You don’t want to feel so full you are going to vomit, but you don’t want to be running on empty so that you feel light headed and unable to complete your training.
- Should you stop eating at a certain hour at night? Not necessarily. You definitely don’t want to go to bed immediately after a meal, so try to allow at least an hour after eating to digest before you go to sleep. But there is no rule that if you eat after 7pm you will automatically gain 5 pounds. You may need to eat lighter, more easily digested meals if you have to eat late and go to bed quickly, but absolutely don’t start skipping dinner because you are worried about the hour on the clock – especially if you have just done a workout!
Looking at all this food timing stuff can be overwhelming, because it contains the most grey area, but don’t let that become the focus that prevents you from making the nutrition improvements you want to make. Don’t let the more complicated stuff stop you from doing the simple stuff. Remember, in terms of the “Big 3”, when to eat matters, but is not the MOST important element. Start by focusing on what you are eating, making sure the foods you choose are full of nutrients and come from whole foods as much as possible. Then look at your portion sizes and make sure you are getting the right amounts. By the time these first two are working well for you, you will probably find you are already getting some results, and you’ll feel ready to examine the food timing choices that are right for you!
Strength & Love, Kati