For every yesteryear Indian, the most important meal of the day used to be the dinner. Whether one was hungry or not, you would go to bed only after having the traditional big dinner. But as the new generation became aware about the ill-effects of lavish dinners, this habit was gradually shed, only to be replaced with a lot of confused choices about what to eat for the last meal of the day.
You probably know that what you eat at night has an enormous impact on your physique, especially fat loss. Let’s say you have your dinner at 2100 hrs every night, go to sleep at 2300 hrs and wake up at 0700 hrs… that means you have starved your body for almost 10 hours, which can be disastrous if your dinner was not appropriate.
The fuss over meal timings
Catabolism means to break down. In relation to muscle, it means muscle wasting, which is opposite of ‘anabolism’ [muscle building]. As per nutritionist John Berardi, in the 7 – 9 hours that you are asleep, you enter into a stage of catabolism as there is no food-intake. Therefore, this long journey into sleep should be as peaceful as possible because it is essential for your body to repair your broken and tired muscles, rejuvenate your mind and provide rest to your senses.
The first hour of the day in the morning when you eat and the time after that is called the post-prandial period. This is the time when nutrients from the meal you ate get utilised and absorbed. It is also during this time that your liver and glycogen stores are being replenished for future use.
After your last meal of the day when you go to sleep, the post-absorptive period begins. This means, now you are not feeding your body; but the body is using the muscle and glycogen stores from the liver to fuel its needs. That is the reason why the first meal in the morning is so important—your body has used up the energy stores during the night. Now, the question is, how to minimise the breakdown of nutrients [specially muscle protein] at night?
If you work out in the morning hours
Remember that muscle breakdown and muscle building are dependent on protein synthesis v/s protein breakdown. The body needs large amounts of amino acids in the blood to increase protein synthesis [sometimes as high as 200 per cent more than normal]. Therefore, protein should form a big part of your last meal. The thing is that even with high levels of protein in the blood, the protein synthesis can remain elevated for only up to two hours, after which it returns to baseline [i.e. normal]. One of the best ways to keep this level high throughout the day and to avoid muscle breakdown is to consume protein from both liquid [whey and casein shakes] and solid foods [chicken, fish, eggs, cottage cheese, pulses] at regular intervals.
The best form of protein to be taken just before bedtime is casein. It is a slow digesting protein, which is released over a 6 – 8 hour period, thus feeding your muscles continuously. But this is to be consumed only when the gap between your dinner and sleep is 2 – 3 hours. If you are overstuffed and still drink a casein shake, you may have to spend the night in the washroom rather than your bed!
Now casein may seem an expensive proposition to some. So to avoid the burden on your pocket, the other alternative is the good old cottage cheese [paneer]. Remember, carbohydrates are required to fuel high intensity exercises like weight training or sprinting. Fat on the other hand is the primary fuel source as the intensity reduces. In fact, during sleep one is exclusively burning fat. So eating carbs at night will only store them; not burn them.
What if you did your workout 3 – 4 hours prior to bed time?
In such a case, there is little chance that carbs will be stored as fat, as your glycogen stores will already be low. In fact, eating carbs is a must now, otherwise your body will feed on the precious muscle. So if you workout late in the evening, then eating carbs, especially low GI [glycaemic index] carbs like oats, sweet potato, and bananas will be beneficial.
The majority of us don’t work out that late. So your dinner should primarily consist of proteins and good fats with carbs only in the form of salads or veggies. However, the fat you consume should be little—too much fat suppresses the hormone sensitive lipase [HSL] which is needed to break down fat.
Here are some good choices for dinner:
- Three egg whites and one whole egg omelette with vegetables, and almonds and walnuts by the side.
- Chicken with sweet potato, with a tablespoon of flaxseed/fish oil in it.
- Cottage cheese [paneer] with peanut butter and sprouts.
- Fish with salads and nuts.
- Sprouts with veggies and flaxseed oil.
You can choose the above in any combination you like. There are hundreds of healthy dinner recipes available on the internet for you to follow. And yes—preserved fruit juices, pastas, chocolates, pizzas, bakery products, Chinese food, rice, soft drinks, and the like should be completely avoided, not only at night but at any time of the day.
This was first published in the February 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing
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