When to eat and what to eat: these two principles are the foundation of healthy eating and following them will radically change the way you eat, look and feel.

Nutrient timing

This is an important concept that is neglected by most people with health or weight issues. It is not only important ‘how much’ and ‘what’ to eat, but also what to eat ‘when’. Our grandparents followed the nutrient timing principle without ever being conscious of it. And we are aware of some basics too. For instance, we know that breakfast is the first and most important meal of the day, but in today’s fast-paced world, we often eat anything we can lay our hands on in the morning or, worse, we skip breakfast. Then there is ‘brunch’—used as a style statement, but is actually one of the worst eating habits.

Ideally, you should be having your first meal within 60 – 90 minutes after you wake up. In the first one hour, make sure you get maximum healthy antioxidants [They are best absorbed on an empty stomach]. Because you have been starving your body of macro nutrients such as carbohydrates since the previous night’s dinner, you need to fuel your body properly in the morning. Too long a gap between waking up and breakfast will lead your body to catabolise or break down your muscles for energy.

Likewise, if the gap between breakfast and lunch is a long one, it will lead to cravings. To keep them at bay, you need to have a healthy, high-protein, low-glycaemic index, low-carbohydrate, optimum-fat and fibre-rich snack. If that seems like too many variables to take care of, don’t worry. A small bowl of sprouts with veggies and chicken/cottage cheese or a whole grain sandwich with vegetables and chicken/cottage cheese is all you need.

The best time to have your lunch is between 12:30pm and 2:30pm, but you can have it later if you adjust your day accordingly.

If you work out, you need a protein and carbohydrate-rich meal at least 30 to 45 minutes before your session. After your workout, there is period of 45 minutes called the anabolic window in which the body is most receptive to nutrient absorption. A liquid protein and carbohydrate meal, for e.g. whey protein in water is the best thing to have in that window. When it comes to dinner, keep it light and try to have a gap of at least three hours between dinner and bedtime.

Nutrient intake

We discussed the optimal times for nutrient intake. Now let us look at what foods we should be eating at those times. Once you get up in the morning, the first thing you need is not tea or fruits, as some dieticians believe, but water. And, not water with lemon or honey added, but plain water. Once you’re done washing up in the morning, have green/white/black tea or black coffee with lemon or a vitamin C tablet. The antioxidants from both will be fully absorbed on an empty stomach.

As part of your first meal, having a fruit isn’t a great idea. For that matter, any form of high-GI [glycaemic index] food isn’t good to eat first thing in the morning as your body is deprived of carbohydrates after a night’s sleep. So any form of simple carbohydrates will spike your blood sugar levels, raising your insulin levels in turn, mistakenly signalling to the brain that you’re starving, so the carbohydrates consumed then will be stored as fat instead of being used for energy. The sharp rise in blood sugar will also later lead to a crash at an equally fast rate making you feel hungry and give you cravings soon after you’ve had your meal.

A good breakfast should comprise of high protein as research has shown that proteins in a meal not only curb the sharp rise in blood sugar but also keeps you satiated for longer, thus preventing food cravings and hunger pangs. A low GI carbohydrate source such as oats, multi-grain breads and poha [flattened rice] along with protein-rich foods such as eggs, cottage cheese and milk are the best option. Add some nuts to it and you have one of the healthiest breakfasts possible.

As mentioned earlier, you can have sprouts or a multi-grain sandwich as a snack between breakfast and lunch. For lunch, have a home-cooked meal and make a habit of eating a bowl of curd or drinking a glass of buttermilk along with it. Before your workout, if you’re doing a session of weight-training or HIIT [high intensity interval training], then a fruit with black coffee and a vitamin C tablet is all you need. For dinner, avoid carbs and have lots of proteins, salads and soups.

These suggestions are for an average person and your mileage may vary. But when you follow them, you will see and feel a profound difference in your body within a very short span of time. These are not faddish recommendations but is solid advice that can be the basis of healthy eating for life.

This was first published in the April 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
Akshay Chopra
Akshay is one of the most qualified and experienced health, fitness and nutrition consultants in the field. An athlete, coach, nutritionist, author and over all a defence forces officer and a former pilot - all rolled in one. A transformation expert, he is known for taking over those cases which most professionals have given up. He is the co-founder and Fitness Chief of one of the most research based gyms in the country "Body Mechanics" and just launched the Human Design School.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here