The two cardinal rules of eating

Getting the most out of your diet means knowing not just what to eat, but when to eat it, says an accomplished fitness expert

plate with fork spoon, clock

When it comes to the right way of eating, we all know what not to do, but few of us know what to do. When I ask my clients to tell me the basics of eating correctly, most of them are not able to say much beyond concepts like eating fewer calories or not skipping breakfast. There are two basic guidelines that I suggest to my clients. These two rules—about food timing and nutrient intake—can phenomenally impact the outcome of your workout and diet plan.

Nutrient timing

Timing of a meal can play a major role in your struggle with weight or health problems. Our ancestors followed the nutrient timing principle without actually being conscious about it. Unfortunately, in today’s fast-paced world, we either completely skip eating breakfast or we chomp down whatever we can lay our hands on in the morning’s rush. Some people “brunch” instead of eating a proper breakfast. However, doing so is detrimental to your health. Let’s look at the ideal timing for each meal.


Ideally, you should have your first meal between 60 – 90 minutes after you wake up. Try not to eat almost immediately after waking up. Save the first hour to do your morning chores, some exercise or pranayama. It is important to fuel your body correctly at breakfast, because your body has been starved of essential micronutrients since the previous night’s meal. If there is too long a gap between waking up and having your first meal, i.e. more than 90 minutes, then your body will begin breaking down your muscles for energy.


Generally, there is a substantial gap between breakfast and lunch, and this usually leads to hunger and cravings. You can eat a healthy, nutrient-rich, low-carbohydrate snack in between the meals to keep your body going. Ideally, you should have your lunch between 12:30 – 2:30pm. However, a slight delay is acceptable if you adjust your day accordingly.

Pre and post-workout

Depending on the type of workout you do, you need a protein and carbohydrate-rich snack at least 30 – 45 minutes before you exercise. This is especially necessary if the gap between your lunch and workout is greater than 120 minutes. Your post-workout meal is just as important. Unfortunately, most of us tend to neglect this important nutrient timing. The body is most receptive to nutrient absorption up to 45 minutes after a workout.


Being the final meal of your day, dinner needs to be light and taken at the right time. Eating a heavy meal just before hitting the bed can adversely affect your health. A gap of at least three hours between dinner and sleep is best.

To satisfy any hunger craving between your breakfast and lunch, you need to have a high protein and fibre-rich snack

Nutrient intake

Knowing what kind of nutrient to eat for breakfast, lunch, pre/post workout and dinner is vital. This second guideline is essential to extract maximum health benefits from our diets. Although my recommendations are based on traditional Indian cuisine, the rule can be applied to cuisines of other regions as well.

The first thing you need to do when you get up in the morning is not have a cup of tea/coffee or some fruit, as is generally advised. Instead, drink some water. Squeeze some lemon juice in the water to make it alkaline. About 90 minutes after you wake up, you can have herbal or non-herbal tea or black coffee with some lemon, or a vitamin C tablet. The antioxidants from both will be absorbed maximum on an empty stomach.


In your first meal, having a fruit or any other food with a high glycaemic index is not a great idea since your body is deprived of carbohydrates after a night’s sleep [especially if you are off carbohydrates during dinner]. Therefore, any form of simple, high GI carbohydrates will spike your blood sugar levels. This will, in turn, raise your body’s insulin levels, sending a message of starvation to your brain. As a result, your body will store the carbohydrates as fats, instead of using it for energy. Contrarily, a sharp rise in blood sugar levels, caused by high GI foods, will lead to an equally sharp crash in the blood sugar levels, making you feel hungry soon after your meal.

An ideal breakfast must contain proteins, in addition to low GI carbohydrates like oats, multigrain breads and poha

Research has shown that having a high-protein breakfast is ideal, as it not only helps curb the sharp rise in blood sugar, but also keeps you satiated for long. This prevents you from getting food cravings and hunger pangs. Therefore, an ideal breakfast must contain proteins, like eggs, cottage cheese, or milk, in addition to low GI carbohydrate sources like oats, multigrain breads and poha. Add some nuts to it and you will have one of the healthiest breakfast options available.


To satisfy any hunger craving between your breakfast and lunch, you need to have a high protein and fibre-rich snack. Opt for a bowl of salad made from sprouts with some vegetables, chicken or cottage cheese. Alternatively, you can have a multigrain-bread sandwich with chicken or paneer and some vegetables.

For lunch, you can eat simple home-cooked food, like rotis, vegetable, rice with dal, with a side of salad. Additionally, have a bowl of curd or a glass of buttermilk.

What you eat at night can greatly influence your health

Pre and post-workout

As stated earlier, your pre and post-workout meals are important. For the pre-workout snack, you can eat to suit the kind of exercise you would be performing. If the session involves weight-training or HIIT [high intensity interval training], then a fruit with black coffee and a vitamin C tablet are all you need.

For a post-workout meal, you can supplement your training with a liquid protein and carbohydrate diet. Ideally, you can have whey protein in water.


It is important to keep your dinner simple yet nutritious. Avoid having carbohydrate-rich foods. Instead, include proteins like chicken or fish, salads or soups in your dinner. What you eat at night can greatly influence your health.

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While these suggestions can be adopted by anyone, the results can differ from person to person. Regardless, following these guidelines will make you see and feel a profound difference in your body within a very short span of time. These suggestions are not some type of fad but a healthy way of eating for life.

This was first published in the September 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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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.


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