what to eat and when to eat it.

Hello all, it was a busy week, but I wanted to be sure I answered another one of your questions! Last week, I talked about supporting your gut health while taking antibiotics. When I asked you all about the nutrition advice you find most confusing I got a lot of responses about when to eat and what to eat. Regardless of your current eating habits this is something we all overthink. There are just too many nutrition "rules" out there and they tend to contradict one another. 

To avoid overgeneralizing I am going to address four common questions in a series of posts about when and what to eat. My goal is to clear up some of the confusion that exists around meal timing and choices and hopefully answer a number of your questions in the process. 

Here are the questions I will be answering over the next two weeks:

  1. Should I eat if I'm not hungry?
  2. Should I avoid eating after 8pm?
  3. When is the best time to eat carbs?
  4. What do I eat before and after exercise?

"Should I eat if I'm not hungry?"

Typically, if you are hungry, you should eat. In my post about snacks I talked a bit about the consequences of not eating when your body is telling you it needs fuel. (In that post I also discussed good snack options to keep on hand  for when hunger strikes.)

However, deciding if you should eat when you're not hungry can be tricky. In situations where there are external cues pressuring you to eat, such as at parties or in the office break room, it is important to use your hunger, or lack there of, to help you make the best choices.

However, what about the average day when it is "meal time" but you are not hungry? 

Case Study: Skipping breakfast.

The scenario: Suzy Q rarely eats breakfast. She attributes this to a variety of reasons. Suzy says she doesn't have time, she doesn't like breakfast foods and she is NEVER hungry in the morning. She adds that she really wants to lose weight, and skipping breakfast is an easy way to "cut back" on what she eats during the day. Upon further discussion I find that Suzy grabs a vanilla latte most mornings at the coffee shop next to where she works. Around 10AM she usually feels herself crashing but she knows she can find a quick treat, usually a cookie, in the lunch room. She says her coworkers are always bring in sweets, especially around the holidays. When it's lunch time she eats lunch brought from home. When dinner time arrives she is often ravenous and more often than not she will stuff herself to the point of being uncomfortable. She believes her large dinner contributes to her lack of hunger in the morning.

(I may be exaggerating here, but if even one of these reasons or situations sound familiar, keep reading.)

The facts: Skipping breakfast will not help Suzy lose weight, in fact it will hinder her efforts.   Her energy crashes and extreme hunger stem from skipping breakfast AND overconsumption of sugar (flavored latte, office cookie). She doesn't need to eat "breakfast foods" for breakfast.

Eating breakfast sets the tone for the entire day! It signals your brain and your body to wake up. Breakfast can actually help you lose weight because it helps your metabolism get moving. Eating breakfast helps prevent sugar and carb cravings.  It does so by helping you maintain consistent blood sugars (<<check out this post if you don't know about blood sugars) throughout the day. When Suzy starts her day with a sugary, flavored latte her blood sugars soar.   When that high comes down, around 10AM, she is left tired and hungry. She reaches for a cookie, which is quick, easy, and full of the sugar her body is craving. This makes her blood sugar high again. The cycle continues. Soon she is ravenous for dinner and she stuffs herself. A good (real food) breakfast primes your body and your blood sugars for a "good day" free of blood sugar extremes.  This brings us to what to eat for breakfast. Quality matters...

The experiment: I explain to Suzy all of the facts. She starts to see that skipping breakfast may be connected to more issues than she realized. She agrees to try having breakfast. However, she doesn't love breakfast foods and is short on time. I give her these suggestions:

  • Avoid filling up on carbohydrates by themselves first thing in the morning. This will contribute to cravings, hunger and blood sugar extremes. I explain that these carbohydrate dense or sugar filled breakfasts will not help her efforts: cereal or granola (especially with fat free milk), sugar sweetened oatmeal, waffles with syrup, a piece of fruit by itself, fat free/light/100 calorie yogurt.
  • Try "not breakfast foods". This can be cream cheese spread on a slice of deli turkey meat and rolled up or a few bites of dinner from the night before. Try a protein shake: mix a scoop of your favorite protein powder with milk or water and take it in the car with you. You can have a piece of fruit on the side with this too!
  • Try eggs, again. Just because there is so much you can do with them!
  • It is not all or nothing. Start small! Even just a few bites (or sips) of something is going to serve you well and "wake up" your metabolism. This can be one egg or half of an egg bake slice. A slice of bacon. A spoonful of almond butter. A full-fat yogurt. A few gulps of whole milk. Nut butter with fruit. A few handfuls of homemade granola (low carbohydrate and high fat content if you're looking at a label). Check out my snacks post, because any of these snack ideas could make for a great breakfast, especially if eating breakfast is new to you! 
  • It doesn't need to be right away. I typically wake up around 6AM and eat breakfast in my office when I get in around 7 or 730AM. (I pack my breakfast so I am not tempted by the delicious muffins I smell every morning). On the weekends I sometimes wait 2 hours before I eat. It is okay to listen to your body, but being prepared is essential. Without a good breakfast option on hand those cookies in the break room are going to get more tempting by the minute!

The results: Suzy decides to start by having a spoonful of cashew butter on her way out the door. She is still getting her latte but she does not get a flavor. Instead she gets a plain coffee latte with full fat milk (a nice fat and carbohydrate combo for slower digestion) and sprinkles some cinnamon on top. (Fun fact: cinnamon helps with blood sugar control!). She has started finding that her hunger actually increases before lunch, but she feels "in control". She realizes that the hunger she feels mid morning is real hunger because her body is awake and her metabolism is working. She also realizes that her previous quick reach for a cookie was not due to a rumbling in her stomach but due to a drop in blood sugar and energy. Now, instead of reaching for that cookie she nibbles on some almonds or a Larabar until lunchtime. 

I encourage you to evaluate your eating habits and your breakfast routine. Do you normally skip breakfast? Is there anything that occurs later in the day that may be a result of that missed meal? If you are a breakfast skipper I challenge you to try having 3-5 bites/sips of something every morning this week. This can be any of the above mentioned ideas. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.

A quick side note about skipping other meals. If you are not hungry, it is okay to wait to eat. It is so easy to get stuck in your daily routine and forget to listen to your body. Interestingly, my sister and I have this conversation at least once a month. One of us will text the other and it usually goes something like this:

 "Ugh, I was so hungry when I came home from school so I had a big snack (a real food snack of course). Dinner was done at 6 and it was "time to eat" so I just ate. I wasn't even hungry though! Now I am stuffed and bloated." 

Eating doesn't need to be complicated or overwhelming. The hard part is tuning in to what your body is telling you, and then listening.

Here are my "rules" about timing and eating: Listen to your body. Eat when you are hungry. Eat real food. 

eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.

look out for my post about eating at night...coming later this week...