What and When You Should Eat

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It’s not just what you eat but when you eat that matters. The perfect food for one situation may be horrible for another. Nutrient timing is a science that athletes use to try to get the most out of every calorie they consume. Not everyone needs an athlete’s level of efficiency, but all of us will benefit from a basic understanding of nutrient timing.

This is 911, need-to-know info only. To keep you focused on the big picture, I’ll begin with an example at the extreme end of nutrient timing. If the average Joe followed the same diet as an Ironman triathlete, he’d likely have type 2 diabetes in a matter of months. Conversely, if someone tried to complete an Ironman on even the healthiest version of a low-carb diet, that person would either be forced to quit or die. This is not just because either diet would mean eating too much food or too little food. Different foods cause the body’s metabolic process to react in different ways; and various activities should be fueled using various means.

Let’s begin by looking at our possible fuel sources:
Carbohydrates
Are fuel only. They aren’t stored in body tissue, only in the blood and liver as glycogen, which needs to be burnt off. They are essential for high-level functioning like running fast, lifting heavy things, and thinking. They are digested and put to use by your body very quickly. If you eat more than you burn, your body will convert them to be stored in adipose (fat) tissue.

Proteins
Called the body’s building blocks. Hence, you need them to rebuild tissue that breaks down daily. You digest proteins slowly, and at a certain point, your body just can’t assimilate them. Therefore, it’s important that throughout the day you eat foods that are high in protein.

Fats
Help regulate all of your bodily functions. They are dense and contain over twice the calories of proteins and carbohydrates. While they are vital for our health, it’s easy to eat too much of them, which will result in unwanted fat tissue on your body. You digest fats slowly, and fats will also help slow the digestion of anything else you eat. Fats are also your backup fuel source, though they can’t be put to use right away the way carbs can.

Fiber
Categorized as a carbohydrate, it is not a source of fuel as it has no calories. It’s the indigestible part of a plant and is of vital importance in your diet because it regulates the absorption of the foods you eat. It also helps us feel full. Most of us don’t eat enough fiber, and that’s a big part of the obesity problem.

Alcohol
Not really a food source but something we tend to consume. It has nearly twice the calories of proteins and carbs (though it lacks fuel) and digests rapidly. Its only healthy function is that it seems to make us happy. Studies indicate this is a good thing, as those who consume alcohol generally live longer than those who don’t, but from a purely nutritional standpoint, it’s not so hot because you’re getting calories without any upside. Its use should be strategic and regulated for best results.

Now let’s look at the various situations we face daily, at least on most days—hopefully.

Relaxing
This is when we’re sedentary both physically and mentally. In a relaxed state, you burn very few calories because your body is engaged as little as possible, hence the relaxing.

Sedentary work
When we’re at work or school. Our bodies aren’t moving, but our brains are engaged. The brain runs on glycogen, which is blood sugar fueled by carbohydrates.

Low-level exercise
Like mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or going for a walk. This breaks down body tissue, so you’re burning calories, but it’s not intense work. Therefore, it can be fueled by your stored body fat. Your body tries to fuel its low-level outputs by mobilizing fat stores because this saves its limited glycogen for emergency situations.

High-level exercise
Fueled by glycogen. When you really have to get after it, all sorts of hormones go to work, and your body burns its blood sugar. Body-tissue breakdown is rapid, and your stored blood sugar (glycogen) won’t last much more than an hour.

Sleep
A very active time. Deep sleep is where your body works the hardest to repair itself. You need nutrients to make these repairs, but it’s better if you aren’t mucking up the process with digestion. This is why you hear that you shouldn’t eat too much at night. It’s best to eat early to allow most of the digestion to happen while you’re awake, thus allowing your body to use all its energy for recovery during sleep. It is worth noting here that it’s better to eat before bed if you need the nutrients—don’t skip them. Your body can’t repair itself without nutrients, and recovery from breakdown is why we eat in the first place. Next, let’s take a look at an important word you need to know: insulin.

Insulin
Wikipedia tells us that insulin “is a hormone that has extensive effects on metabolism and other body functions, such as vascular compliance. Insulin causes cells in the liver, muscle, and fat tissue to take up glucose from the blood, storing it as glycogen in the liver and muscle, and stopping use of fat as an energy source.” Okay, that’s a little scientific, but look at all the things we’ve already referenced: hormone, glycogen, metabolism, and fat as an energy source. Even if you don’t fully comprehend “vascular compliance,” you can tell that insulin is something important in today’s discussion.

Sure enough, it’s the only hundred-dollar word we need to know today. Your body’s insulin response is the main reason you want to eat certain foods at certain times, to do certain things.

Putting it all together
Now let’s take what we’ve just learned and put it to use. For most of us, nutrient timing is pretty simple. The next thing to consider is what you’re going to be doing or what you just did. As I said before, what you eat should be based on this. You’ve probably heard about the evils of sugar, or maybe even the glycemic index. Using the science of nutrient timing, you can turn sugar into something healthy because it’s the only thing that transports nutrients into your blood quickly enough to be of service during and after hard exercise.

Essentially, sugar or other easily digested carbs (the less fiber the better) promote an insulin release. This speeds the transformation of carbohydrates into glucose in your blood. As your glycogen stores are depleted during exercise, recharging them with sugar minimizes the damage done by the breakdown of tissue during exercise. Therefore, sugar, the oft-vilified ingredient, is actually your body’s preferred nutrient during times of excessive stress and tissue breakdown.

Pretty cool, huh? The bad news is that this miracle nutrient is not good for you when you’re not doing intense exercise, which for almost all of us is most of the time. In fact, sugar’s very bad for you because the insulin response that was so fabulous for you when you were bonking (glycogen depleted) is not so fabulous for you when you’re sitting in front of the boob tube.

Remember this from the Wikipedia definition of insulin, “stopping use of fat as an energy source”? That’s bad when you’re sitting around. Remember how one of dietary fat’s responsibilities is to fuel you during low-intensity exercise? Well, when sugar causes your insulin to spike, it cuts off that process. Now not only are you not burning body fat for low-level outputs, you’re trying to force your body to use its glycogen. Double bad.

Unless you’re exercising, sugar intake should be minimized. During these times—which is most of the time—your diet should consist of a mixture of proteins, fats, and complex carbohydrates. The latter are natural sources of carbohydrates that generally come with fiber, which regulates the insulin response. Whole fruit, a simple carbohydrate by definition because it contains fructose (a sugar), always contains fiber and, thus, can be treated as a complex carb. Fruit juice, and other such stuff, is processed; it, along with processed complex carbohydrates like white rice, can cause an insulin response, so these types of foods should be used more like sports foods than staples.

It’s also important to note that combining all these different nutrients slows sugar’s ability to incite insulin into action. Therefore, a little sugar like a dessert after a well-rounded meal is buffered by the meal. The calories and lack of decent nutrients (processed sugar is devoid of most nutrients, except for energy) still count toward your overall diet, but at least you don’t have to worry about an insulin spike.

So the main point of this article is very simple. You should eat small, well-rounded meals most of the time. These should include some proteins, some fats, some fiber, and some carbs. During (only if it’s a long workout) and after hard workouts, you should supplement your diet with sugar or simple carbohydrates. After this, you should go back to eating well-rounded meals again.

Sports nutrition has evolved this process even further. In nature, foods are generally slow to digest. Nature’s great sports foods are things such as bananas and figs. These are sugary but still contain fiber and other nutrients. Science has found ways to make foods that are even more efficient during sports. These basically manipulate pH levels and process the sugars to speed them into your system. Outstanding when you need it. Terrible when you don’t.

They’ve even taken this a step further by finding a ratio of other nonsugary nutrients (like protein) that can be transported by the sugar to give you a further benefit. Beachbody’s Results and Recovery Formula uses this science. When you’re bonking during a hard workout, it speeds nutrients that are essential for quick recovery into your system as quickly as possible.

I can’t stress how important it is that sports fuels be used for sports performance only. Gatorade, soda, and all sugar candies (hey, no fat!) all function as the poor man’s sports foods. Unfortunately, those perusing the Quick Stop generally aren’t trying to fuel up after doing Plyo X, and therein may lay our obesity trend.

In case the topic is still a bit fuzzy, let’s use the above logic on the examples in the intro: An Ironman athlete is doing intense exercise for 10 to 12 hours or more. During this time, that athlete is mainly burning glycogen, which is gone after an hour or so. The athlete burns stored fat, too, but this is limited in its effectiveness. To race, the athlete must replenish with sports foods because they contain the only nutrients that the athlete will digest fast enough to help. To complete an Ironman, especially at your physical limit, it may take 5,000 calories coming mainly from sugar.

This is a sports-specific diet only. Someone trying to eat that way during a viewing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy would be lucky to stay out of the emergency room. Conversely, if you tried to maintain a 25-mph speed for 8 hours on your bike while munching on raw spinach and lean steak, you’d bonk so hard you’d be praying to get yanked from the race at the first checkpoint. That should cover your 911 on nutrient timing. Next time, we’ll move on to the topic of supplements. Are they magic pills, overhyped placebos, or something in between?

Fat, Not Glucose, is the Preferred Fuel for Your Body

Dietary FatWhile we may consider ourselves to be at the pinnacle of human development, our modern food manufacturing processes have utterly failed at improving health and increasing longevity.

During the Paleolithic period, many thousands of years ago, our ancestors ate primarily vegetables, fruit, nuts, roots and meat—and a wide variety of it. This diet was high in fats and protein, and low in grain- and sugar-derived carbohydrates.

The average person’s diet today, on the other hand, is the complete opposite, and the average person’s health is a testament of what happens when you adhere to a faulty diet. Humans today suffer more chronic and debilitating diseases than ever before.

And there can be little doubt that our food choices play a major role in this development. Quite simply, you were not designed to eat large amounts of refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, cereal, bread, potatoes and pasteurized milk products.

As Mark Sisson states in the featured article1:

“If you want to live a better life and eat the best foods nature provided for health and fitness, then it’s time to ditch the old paradigms and climb on to the primal approach to eating better.”

Is Glucose Really Your Body’s Preferred Fuel?

The notion that glucose is the preferred fuel for your body is a pervasive one. Everyone from diabetics to top athletes are advised to make sure they eat “enough” carbs to keep their systems from crashing. This is unfortunate, as this misguided advice is at the very heart of many of our current health failures.

As Mark so succinctly spells out in his article, FAT is actually the preferred fuel of human metabolism, and this can be traced back to our evolutionary roots.

Historically speaking, carbohydrate intake has always been quite low. Likewise, the diseases we now know are associated with insulin resistance—which is primarily caused by excess consumption of refined carbs—have been quite rare.

The evidence is both clear and overwhelming: Carbohydrate intake is the primary factor that determines your body’s fat ratio, and processed grains and sugars (particularly fructose) are the primary culprits behind our skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates.

“It follows logically that if you can limit carb intake to a range of which is absolutely necessary (and even up to 50 grams a day over) and make the difference up with tasty fats and protein, you can literally reprogram your genes back to the evolutionary-based factory setting you had at birth – the setting that offered you the opportunity to start life as a truly efficient fat-burning organism and to continue to do so for the rest of your life as long as you send the right signals to your genes,” Mark writes.

Why the Low-Carb/High-Fat Diet Works for Weight Loss

Switching from a carb-based diet to a fat- and protein-based diet will help rebalance your body’s chemistry, and a natural side effect of this is weight loss, and/or improved weight management once you’re at an ideal weight. One explanation for this is that you don’t really get fat from eating too much and exercising too little. Nor do you get fat from eating fat. One researcher that has clearly established this is Dr. Richard Johnson, whose latest book, The Fat Switch, dispels many of the most pervasive myths relating to diet and obesity.

Dr. Johnson discovered the method that animals use to gain fat prior to times of food scarcity, which turned out to be a powerful adaptive benefit. His research showed that fructose activates a key enzyme, fructokinase, which in turn activates another enzyme that causes cells to accumulate fat. When this enzyme is blocked, fat cannot be stored in the cell. Interestingly, this is the exact same “switch” animals use to fatten up in the fall and to burn fat during the winter. Fructose is the dietary ingredient that turns on this “switch,” causing cells to accumulate fat, both in animals and in humans.

In essence, overeating and excess weight could be viewed as a symptom of an improper diet. It’s not necessarily the result of eating too many calories, per se, but rather getting your calories from the wrong sources. In simple terms, when you consume too many sugars and carbs, you set off a cascade of chemical reactions in your body that makes you hungry and craving for sweets:

  1. First, fructose is metabolized differently from glucose, with the majority being turned directly into fat because fructose stimulates a powerful “fat switch.”
  2. This rapidly leads to weight gain and abdominal obesity (“beer belly”), decreased HDL, increased LDL, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood sugar, and high blood pressure—i.e., classic metabolic syndrome.
  3. Dietary carbohydrates, especially fructose, are also the primary source of a substance called glycerol-3-phosphate (g-3-p), which causes fat to become fixed in fat tissue.
  4. At the same time, high carb intake raises your insulin levels, which prevents fat from being released.
  5. Fructose further tricks your body into gaining weight by turning off your body’s appetite-control system. Fructose does not suppress ghrelin (the “hunger hormone”) and doesn’t stimulate leptin (the “satiety hormone”), which together result in feeling hungry all the time, even though you’ve eaten. As a result, you overeat and develop insulin resistance, which is not only an underlying factor of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a long list of other chronic diseases.

The resulting equation is simple: fructose and dietary carbohydrates (grains, which break down into sugar) lead to excess body fat, obesity and related health issues. Furthermore, no amount of exercise can compensate for this damage because if you eat excessive fructose and grains—the primary ingredients NOT found in our ancestral diet—it will activate programming to cause your body to become, and remain, fat.

How Much Glucose or Carbs Do You Really Need?

The debate about whether or not you really need glucose, and if so, how much, is by no means settled. Earlier this year, I ran a series of articles featuring the back-and-forth discussion between two well-researched experts on this topic, Dr. Jaminet and Dr. Rosedale.

Dr. Jaminet is a proponent of so-called “safe starches,” and is of the conviction that depleting your glycogen store can stress other systems to provide the glucose your body requires to perform. Dr. Rosedale, on the other hand, points out that because glucose consumption will undoubtedly spike blood glucose levels and increase insulin and leptin, promoting resistance, glucose consumption is always associated with some incremental degree of damage and/or increased risk of mortality. His diet is subsequently extremely carb-restrictive.

Yet another diet similar to Drs. Jaminet and Rosedale’s is the GAPS diet, created by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, which is specifically designed to help “heal and seal” your gut. As such, it primarily consists of easily digestible, lightly cooked foods that are high in protein, fats, and fermented foods, and low in fiber and carbs.

Mark Sisson also adds valuable insight to this discussion2:

“At any one time, the total amount of glucose dissolved in the bloodstream of a healthy non-diabetic is equivalent to only a teaspoon (maybe 5 grams). Much more than that is toxic; much less than that and you pass out. That’s not much range for a so-called “preferred” fuel, is it?

Several studies have shown that under normal low MET conditions (at rest or low-to mid- levels of activity such as walking and easy work) the body only needs about 5 grams of glucose an hour. And that’s for people who aren’t yet fat-adapted or keto-adapted. The brain is the major consumer of glucose, needing maybe 120 grams a day in people who aren’t yet on a low carb eating program.

Low carb eating reduces the brain’s glucose requirements considerably, and those who are very low carb (VLC) and keto-adapted may only require about 30 grams of glucose per day to fuel the brain… Twenty of those grams can come from glycerol (a byproduct of fat metabolism) and the balance from gluconeogenesis in the liver (which can actually make up to a whopping 150 grams a day if you haven’t metabolically damaged it with NAFLD through fructose overdosing).

Bottom line, unless you are a physical laborer or are training (exercising) hard on a daily basis, once you become fat-adapted, you probably don’t ever need to consume more than 150 grams of dietary carbs – and you can probably thrive on far less. Many Pbers [Mark’s diet, Primal Blueprint] do very well (including working out) on 30-70 grams a day.” [Emphasis mine]

Key Point: Replace Carbs with Healthful Fats

As I see it, this is really a non-issue for most people as few people anywhere near Dr. Jaminet’s recommendation of cutting carbs from the standard 50 percent down to 20-30 percent of total calories. However, if you’ve already begun to seriously address your carb intake then you may want to experiment with various amounts of “safe carbs” like rice and potatoes. As Mark describes, the actual amount of carbs could vary anywhere from 30 to 150 grams a day, depending on whether your body has adapted to burning ketones and your level of exercise.

Keep in mind that when we’re talking about harmful carbs, we’re only referring to grains and sugars, NOT vegetable carbs.

When you cut grain/sugar carbs you actually need to radically increase the amount of vegetables you eat since, by volume, the grains you need to trade out are denser than vegetables. You also need to dramatically increase healthful fats such as avocados, coconut oil, egg yolks, raw grass fed organic butter, olives and nuts.

You would not want to use highly processed and genetically engineered omega-6 oils like corn, canola and soy as they will upset your omega 6/3 ratio. Of course you want to avoid all trans fats, but contrary to popular advice, saturated fats are a key component of a healthy diet that will promote weight loss.

A reasonable goal will be to have as much as 50-70 percent of your diet as healthy fat, which will radically reduce your carbohydrate intake. It can be helpful to remember that fat is far more satiating than carbs, so if you have cut down on carbs and feel ravenous, this is a sign that you have not replaced them with sufficient amounts of healthy fat. Sources of healthy fats that you’ll want to add to your diet include:

  • Olives and Olive oil (for cold dishes)
  • Coconuts, and coconut oil (for all types of cooking and baking)
  • Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk
  • Raw Nuts, such as, almonds or pecans
  • Organic pastured egg yolks
  • Avocados
  • Pasture finished meats
  • Palm oil
  • Unheated organic nut oils

Most people will likely notice massive improvement in their health by following this approach as they are presently consuming FAR more grain and bean carbohydrates in their diet, and any reduction will be a step in the right direction. To help you get started on the right track, review my Nutritional Plan, which guides you through these dietary changes one step at a time.

Recent Research Confirms Benefits of Low-Carb/High-Fat Diet

Conventional advice has focused on low-fat diets for weight loss and heart disease prevention, but again and again, studies demonstrate that this advice is diametrically opposed to reality… In one such study, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s Heart and Vascular Institute compared the effects of two diets on vascular health; one low in fat, the other low in carbs. The study in question was presented at this year’s meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Denver, on June 33.

The study included a total of 46 men and women weighing on average 218 pounds. The six-month long weight loss program consisted of moderate aerobic exercise and strength training, and one of two diets, either:

 

  • Low-carb, high-fat: Less than 30 percent of calories from carbs (pastas, breads and sugary fruits), and up to 40 percent from fats (meat, dairy products, and nuts)
  • Low-fat, high-carb diet: Less than 30 percent of calories from fat, and 55 percent from carbs

The low-carb group on average shed 10 pounds in 45 days, while the low-fat group took 70 days to lose the same amount of weight. In terms of vascular health, the low-carb, high-fat dieters showed no harmful vascular changes, which is the primary reason for why so many are afraid of high-fat diets.

According to the lead investigator, professor of medicine and director of clinical and research exercise physiology, Kerry Stewart, Ed.D:

“Our study should help allay the concerns that many people who need to lose weight have about choosing a low-carb diet instead of a low-fat one, and provide re-assurance that both types of diet are effective at weight loss and that a low-carb approach does not seem to pose any immediate risk to vascular health. More people should be considering a low-carb diet as a good option.”

Stewart also believes that the emphasis on low-fat diets has likely contributed to the obesity epidemic in the US by promoting overconsumption of sugars and grains. I couldn’t agree more. The simple reason for this is that grains and sugars raise your insulin levels, which causes insulin resistance and, ultimately, weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.

Listen to Your Body

The evidence is quite clear that chronically raising your blood glucose through consumption of grains and sugars will increase your insulin resistance, which in turn will increase insulin and leptin resistance. And avoiding insulin and leptin resistance is perhaps the single most important factors if you seek optimal health and longevity.

That said, the degree to which you choose to reduce carbs however is, ultimately, up to you. And certain individual biochemical differences can make one diet more beneficial for you than others. The key point is to be aware that consuming sugar, grains and starches will promote insulin resistance to some degree or other, depending on the amount you consume.

As always, remember to listen to your body as it will give you feedback if what you are doing is right for your unique biochemistry and genetics. So listen to that feedback and adjust your program accordingly.