I have lost track of the amount of times I have been asked (and have asked myself!) the following questions:
- What time is best to eat?
- How often should I eat? And my favourite:
- …Oh my god, he/she only ate THAT, and I ate all of THIS. How much should I be eating? Is there something wrong with me?
It seems like everyone these days has an opinion on the “right” way to eat, and it’s super confusing. Nutrition is NOT an exact science; at least not to the extent that we can definitively create a “perfect diet” that applies equally to everyone. Yes, through scientific study we have become aware that certain macro and micro nutrients are essential parts of any diet because our cells require these nutrients to undertake physiological processes. We know that when we don’t get enough (or we get too much) of some things, diseases develop.
But, the basics of nutrition and human metabolism aside, there is a huge expanse of grey area (even some processes we still don’t fully understand). And, (and this is the fun part!), there are countless different ways in which you can healthily ingest those essential macro and micro nutrients we do know are needed by our bodies.
So, within that context, I want to talk about some real, practical strategies for managing those pesky eating questions we like to ask ourselves.
On what time to eat.
No carbs after 4pm. Eat breakfast. Don’t eat breakfast. Eat as soon as you wake. You know what’s silly? Eating when you’re not hungry. Another silly move? Trying to adopt habits entirely irreconcilable with your schedule. If you want to work out what time is best for you to eat, first sit down and write out your weekly schedule. What time do you get up? When do you exercise/are you the most active? If you exercise early, a solid breakfast including protein + a quality complex carbohydrate may be very important for you post-workout in order to replace glycogen stores and stop you crashing at 10.30am. If you’re more active in the evening, you may feel like a smaller breakfast but have a larger lunch or a mid-afternoon banana. If you are a shift worker, your eating routine may look radically different. When you eat needs to suit you and what you do. There is no hard and fast rule.
Some very general guidelines I would recommend are to (i) try to eat after you exercise (preferably within an hour) and include a quality protein and complex carbohydrate in this meal; and (ii) try to avoid eating a large heavy meal just before you exercise or just before you go to sleep, so that you allow your body time to properly digest the meal (and so you train and/or sleep better).
But otherwise? Please, be intuitive. Listen to your body and when it’s hungry. And be realistic. If you have a terrifically busy afternoon running errands, chasing children around and doing chores, a small tuna salad for lunch is not going to cut it.
On how often to eat.
A lot of what I have said above applies to this question, too. The principle here is again, to eat when you are actually hungry. Some people do well on three square meals, whereas others prefer to snack. I know intermittent fasting is currently trendy, and that there has also been a bit of a backlash against what was previously considered the golden rule of always eating breakfast. For some people, reducing meal frequency (on an ongoing basis or intermittently) can facilitate improved blood glucose control and other positive metabolic effects. If this applies to you, then great. If it doesn’t, that’s also a-okay.
So long as (i) you are enjoying an array of fresh, unprocessed whole foods (ii) you are maintaining energy levels and a positive mood and (iii) your body weight is healthy and stable, then how often you consume meals is up to you and your lifestyle. Again, I encourage you to write down your schedule for a week. Do you eat breakfast at 7am but do not get time for lunch til 2.30pm? Taking a zip-lock bag of raw nuts for morning tea may suit you.
The only guidelines I will offer are that you shouldn’t feel the need to eat every few hours. A good meal should last you around 3 to 4 hours, allowing time for the body to digest and metabolise your meal. If you’re hungry within an hour or two of eating, reassess (i) the size and (ii) the content of your meal. If you have a long period (4 hours +) between meals, consider whether you need to factor in a snack, so that you don’t turn into a crazy “hangry” (hungry + angry) monster, which tends to result in overeating and poor food choices at your next meal.
On how much to eat.
Firstly, ask yourself: why am I concerned with how much I am eating? Be honest. Are you overweight? Do you feel sluggish/unwell? Or…is it negative self-talk? The last one hurts, but is a reality for so many. I know it was for me for a long time. Please, speak to a trusted friend or a counsellor if it’s really troubling you; conquering this will improve your eating habits and enjoyment of food, not making physical changes. If you’re questioning how much you eat for another reason, start a “food and mood” diary for at least two weeks to identify trends in your eating habits, what keeps you full, what triggers discomfort, tiredness etc. Then you have concrete data to work with and can make changes to your own eating patterns, rather than blindly following a plan so radically different from your current lifestyle that you give up immediately, or that includes foods that don’t sit well with you digestively.
If and when you are ready to make changes to how much you eat, do so and continue to diarise and evaluate. I won’t make generalised statements as to what these changes might be. I don’t believe in a “one size fits all” approach, and I respect that people have different dietary beliefs and practices. I’m just giving you a strategy for taking the first step in making change. And yes, for some people, improving health might involve reducing portion sizes (I’m not sticking my head in the sand or saying just eat whatever you want). But please, consult with a nutritionist if you want tailored help in achieving specific goals.
And finally – on the comparison question. Shut down that negativity, pronto. Take a look around you. No-one is the same. Comparing what you eat is unhelpful and illogical, as your body is biologically unique: if you eat what “they” eat, you won’t suddenly look like “them”. Scientists are still researching so much amazing stuff in this area, like the role of genetics and epigenetics in determining body weight (e.g. see here and here) and how our gut bacteria affect metabolism and propensity to obesity (e.g. see here and here). We don’t have all the answers. And comparison, apart from definitely being the thief of joy, is completely nonsensical when it comes to watching what others eat. Take #foodspiration but don’t beat yourself up comparing the size, type and/or frequency of your meals.
Dieting will always be a trendy (and profitable) topic, and the articles and books will just keep on comin’. I’m not saying that there aren’t some really great ideas and recipes out there – I’m saying don’t just jump on a bandwagon. Rise above the hype, and work out what’s best for you.
Take home tips:
- Make sure you’re hitting your essential nutrient targets. I really like this little overview of macronutrients on Jess Cox Nutritionists FAQ page.
- Eat according to your schedule – take some time to work out what is practical for you.
- Give yourself time between meals for digestion and assimilation of nutrients, and so you feel real hunger and learn to listen to your body.
- Avoid comparing your meals with others’.