America sure likes its dinner. While other countries view lunch as the biggest meal of the day and dinner as a “don’t go to bed hungry” snack, our busy schedules don’t give us a chance to breathe or eat until 6, 7, 8 PM. And then the feast is on!
I’ve talked to a number of people whose daily eating habits sound like riding a roller coaster:
- Wake up not very hungry – Maybe a piece of toast and some coffee
- Busy all day – A couple pieces of fruit or a light salad or small soup for lunch
- 3 PM – Crash, consume nearest edible (or questionably edible) thing in sight. Sugar kick to get through the rest of the day
- 7 PM – Sugar kick crash, starving, not wanting to cook or think about anything than the nearest opportunity for warm food in mouth. Usually results in eating second portions faster than most people eat their first or purchase of foods that appeal to us regardless of whether it’s nutritious. Pizza, Chinese, Thai, huge plateful of pasta and meatballs, maybe a mini-salad or a couple pieces of broccoli. Hey, at least there’s shredded cabbage somewhere in my lo-mein!
- 9 PM – Another evening snack, usually something sweet because we’re used to having something sweet after dinner
- 10 PM – Go to bed
- Wake up not very hungry.
I wonder why we’re not waking up very hungry. Maybe it’s because we eat two-thirds or more of our calories in the hours immediately before we go to bed. Calories are designed to fuel our activity, right? So what are we fueling at 7 and 9 PM? A rousing, challenging eight hours of sleep (or so we hope).
There’s been a big debate over how to “ideally” fuel our body for weight loss with ideas ranging from:
- Does eating small frequent meals really increase your metabolism?
- Should we always be restricting calories?
- Is intermittent fasting better? (Intermittent fasting involves significantly reducing food consumption or fasting for a day or so followed by regular eating)
- Should we cut out a particular nutrient group (i.e. carbs) or follow a particular diet to optimize weight loss?
- Is three meals a day enough?
- What time should I stop eating before bed? 7 PM? 2 hours before?
You can argue for or against any of these until you are blue in the face…and there’s research to back all of them up. But why should we care unless:
- It fits into your lifestyle
- It gets you results
- You can continue to do it for the long haul
We are the product of our habits, so if we make changes, lose weight and then return to our old habits, I can guarantee you that you’ll return to your old weight. So I took a step back and considered, what do we know and what have I seen in my experiences.
What we know:
- We lose weight when we burn more calories than we consume
- Our blood sugar is most stable when we are fueled consistently throughout the day. Unstable blood sugar is associated with headaches, fatigue, irritability, trouble concentrating and more not so fun things.
- Athletic performance is better when we fuel before and after it
- Non- and minimally processed foods (i.e. fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats) tend to be higher in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, water, fiber) and lower in calories
- Carbohydrates are an ideal source of energy, particularly for the brain and muscles
- Protein provides the foundational building blocks of lean mass, transport proteins, hormones, chemical messengers, enzymes and many other molecules in the body
- Fat helps protect and regulate a number of our body’s functions including hormones, inflammation, cell membranes health and efficient conduction of the neurological system. It also provides access to essential fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K.
- Intermittent fasting is about equivalent to consistent calorie restriction for weight loss results when people performed both options consistently
- Consistent calorie restriction leads to a decrease in metabolism, usually resulting in stubborn plateaus
What I’ve seen:
1. The more frequently we eat throughout the day:
- The more it forces us to think about what we eat and the meal and/or snack planning that goes with it. Most homemade foods will be more nutritious and lower calories than eating out.
- We don’t have the time to eat crappy because we’ve usually planned and are eating meals every few hours. So we’re rarely starving.
- We have more stable blood sugars, so we’re less likely to be ravenously hungry. We tend to make better decisions about food when we’re not ravenously hungry.
- The better and more energized we feel throughout the day. The better we feel, the better we can handle stress. The better we can handle stress the less we want that brownie/cookie/ice cream to comfort us.
- The more likely we are to fuel ourselves pre- and post-workout so we get better workouts and burn more calories during them.
- The less starving we are at dinner so we end up having smaller dinners. And lo and behold we start getting hungry in the morning.
2. There is not particular time to stop eating before bed (i.e. 7 PM). Ideally aim to have your last meal a couple hours before bed. That means if you have dinner at 7 PM but don’t go to bed until midnight, you should be planning a small, balanced snack around 10 PM.
3. A great way to keep your metabolism high during calorie restriction is to stay active, particularly with a resistance training component (weights, bodyweight, etc.). It helps maintain your lean body mass which is your main calorie burner.
4. During periods of calorie restriction, give your body more calories every few days to keep your metabolism from dropping. In other words, have a bit more food every fourth or fifth day if you are mindfully eating less. You can consider it a cheat meal, cheat day or just eat more of the same healthy foods you’re eating normally. The key is not to go insane and eat a whole pizza pie, a tub of ice cream, etc. Enjoy a burger and fries. Have a couple slices of pizza. Enjoy a serving of your favorite dessert. The goal is to have about 20-25% more calories on those days.
5. While I’m personally not a fan of the intermittent fasting approach because it seems to be contrary to the idea of “consistency”, it could be an option if avoiding food for a day doesn’t make you feel like crap and if it doesn’t make you go overboard the day after. ****Be aware not eating for an entire day can have a lot of side effects: watch out if you have diabetes, are sensitive to changes in blood sugar, are on medications, have thyroid issues, etc. In other words, DO NOT make drastic changes like this until you speak with your doctor or appropriate medical professionals about it. And please be sure to drink water!
Don’t just take my word for it. Consider for yourself:
Consider your current meal habits. Write down what you eat and when. Also track your energy levels throughout the day. Is it usually after going a long time without food? Ideally you should be eating a small, balanced meal (carbs, fat, protein) every 3 to 4 hours. About the same amount of food, evenly spaced throughout the day. While that’s a perfect world, start considering how you can make a small shift in that direction.
Another good way to check and see if you’re fueling your body well throughout the day is charting your hunger levels: write down what your hunger level is throughout the day on a scale of 1 (starving) to 10 (stuffed). Aim to be around 3 to 7 all day. When we get too low, we tend to go overboard with eating and then end up too high (think how much we eat when we’re starving…then we’re stuffed because we ate faster than our body could digest and signal us to stop).
- If you know you crash at 3 PM, start planning/bringing a healthy snack with you.
- If you know you always stuff yourself at dinner and are never hungry in the morning, purposefully eat slower (I guarantee you won’t starve if you eat slower) and only to about 80% fullness at dinner for a week and see if your appetite at breakfast changes.
- If you’re skipping meals, eat something…anything!
- If you know you’re eating too little at a particular meal, try adding one more thing.
- Make it a point to fuel yourself pre- and post-workout.
- If you’ve been very strict with your eating and you’ve plateaued, consider adding in a day of increased caloric intake. If you’ve been at a very stubborn plateau, consider actually increasing your caloric intake for a few days in a row. You’d be amazed as to how that can renew your metabolism.
Give one of the ideas a shot, what’s the worst that can happen? Alternatively, what’s the best that can happen?