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?

Coffee, Tea, and Caffeine

Coffee, Tea & Caffeine
Today we discuss the most popular drink in the world: coffee. I don’t actually know where these statistics come from, but since we mainly want to discuss one ingredient, caffeine, I’ll lump coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages into the same discussion so that we’ll be sure to address something that’s pertinent to almost all of you. Coffee and tea have been around for the entirety of recorded history, so no matter what science tells us, we begin this edition with some time-tested knowledge that people don’t go around dropping dead over the stuff, nor will it get you banned for cheating when you win at the Olympics (unless it’s too much).

Coffee and tea are probably the most controversial substances we consume. Unlike, say, soda, candy, chocolate, and fast food—which we know are detrimental to our diets—studies swing both ways over the benefits and dangers of our morning cup of java. But whatever the outcome, we drink the stuff with an almost ritualistic glee. If you drink neither coffee nor tea, you’re an outsider in almost any culture on the planet.

Coffee, tea, and other caffeinated drinks
First off, let’s talk about the difference between tea, coffee, and other drinks laced with caffeine. Coffee and tea are both very simple products made from mixing ground-up plants with hot water. So they’re both 100 percent natural, contain approximately zero calories, and have a few nutrients. What they do contain is caffeine. A lot of it. Coffee has nearly twice as much caffeine as tea, but the amount varies by type and the brewing process. As a general rule, trendy green teas have less caffeine than black teas, which have less than coffee. Figure that for each cup of coffee or tea you consume, you’ll get between 50 milligrams and 200 milligrams of caffeine.

Both have other assorted nutrients, mainly antioxidants, all of which are quite healthy. The downside is that both are acidic to the point that habitual consumption can cause stomach problems in some people. But the main hit or miss with folks when it comes to coffee or tea is the caffeine. After this, their choices are usually made by taste, ritual, or the culture they live in. Caffeine gives you a jolt of energy, which we’ll discuss later, and because of this, many other beverages now come with a healthy dose of the stuff. Most sodas have some caffeine, but the big trend today is toward turbocharged “energy drinks,” a topic for another day. These are often nasty concoctions of sugar, caffeine, and other assorted legal uppers designed to amp you sky-high and provide the illusion that you’re having a good time. They may work, at least for a short time, but they are basically just time bombs of euphoria. When you crash, you crash hard.

Can coffee or tea make you fat?
There is one place we have a definitive answer on this subject, and it’s that neither of these drinks will make you fat. In fact, they should do the opposite. Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning that it affects your metabolic process at a heightened level. Translation: it makes you go to the bathroom more often. It also elevates brain activity, which, technically, should make you less hungry. This is why caffeine is often added to diet aids.

The only things in coffee or tea that can make you fat are the things you add to them. The menu at your local Starbucks contains stuff that makes coffee merely a side dish, if that. And traditional drinks such as Thai iced tea are only tea in name. Therefore, just because something calls itself “coffee” or “tea” doesn’t mean that’s all there is to the story. Like with most foods, reading labels is important. We’ll talk more about coffee drinks next time.

The latest research
Coffee has been in the headlines a lot recently. You may have caught the headlines a while back stating that it could give you a heart attack. Or maybe you caught the study touting it as a superfood, which came out at the same time! Certainly, you’ve heard that it’s a banned substance by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) due to its performance-enhancing qualities. But then why, you wonder, did you just see a headline saying you should avoid it prior to a workout? And what about that study stating that if you drank enough coffee, it would stave off the effects of all that alcohol you consume?

Coffee, tea, and caffeine are perhaps the most widely studied things we put into our bodies (over 19,000 recent recorded studies), yet no definitive stance can be found on the stuff. If this seems odd, we must consider the fact that studies need to be funded and a lot of money can skew a study to say this or that—a subject I touch on often in my blog. At any rate, let’s wade into some of the more recent headlines and try to make some sense out of them.

Will coffee give you a heart attack?
Apparently it will—if you’re “at risk for heart attacks,” according to a syndicated article that was all over the Internet a while back. But what does this mean? The article begins with the vague line about how coffee may trigger a heart attack in some people. If you delve deeper, the water becomes muddier, so, tired of sifting through their muck, I went to the source.

For over 4 years, a large Costa Rican study examined the relationship among 503 nonfatal heart attacks. The study found that most of the subjects drank coffee prior to having the heart attack. In the stats, it appeared that light coffee drinkers were at more risk than heavy coffee drinkers. This, as you might suppose, caused some confusion. Looking deeper into the abstract, we see that the researchers think that the coffee/heart attack relationship stems from a rare gene variation in some people. They also stated that their research was “far from conclusive.” The report on Yahoo!® made no mention of the gene variant and, instead, went with the more alarmist “those at risk” line because “who isn’t, right?” The study also clearly stated that most of the population was at zero risk from drinking coffee.

The bottom line of the study was that most of the population was not at risk, and the few that might be, also may not be. So, for now, I’ll side with Dr. Robert Eckel, former president of the American Heart Association, and remain “unconvinced.” Furthermore, a study done over 2 decades using 120,000 subjects concluded that there was no relationship between even heavy coffee drinking and heart disease. This study, done in part by the Harvard School of Public Health, showed that there was no link between heart disease and a daily intake of six or more cups of coffee per day. It also stated the risk was the same for those who consumed less than one cup of coffee or tea per month. This study also addressed the Costa Rican findings, stating they were “possible” but “require confirmation.”

Can you lose your gold medal?
Not anymore. In 2004, the IOC removed caffeine from its list of banned items. Prior to that, athletes could be busted for drinking about five or more cups of coffee. Certainly, this means that some highly regarded scientists once thought it was an ergogenic (a performance enhancer). But was it removed because it was found to be ineffective, as there are now better ways of “cheating,” or because the coffee lobby contributed to the IOC? Time may or may not tell, but one thing’s for sure: many people believe caffeine enhances performance.

A recent Swiss study, however, refutes it, at least in one sense. The study of 18 individuals showed that coffee prior to exercise restricted heart blood flow by 22 percent. Obviously, this would be a detriment to performance, but again, the research is far from conclusive. For one, the study used regular coffee drinkers, and participants were not allowed to drink coffee for 36 hours prior to the experiment, so their results may have had to do with a coffee-withdrawal effect. And two, no study of 18 people can be anywhere close to conclusive. But it’s interesting, for sure, and certainly much more will be done. I’d keep an eye out for more on this.

But again, there’s a lot more science showing that it has positive physical effects, even if they stem from better brain function. An Austrian study using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to assess memory skills showed that there was a marked improvement in motor skills and memory after subjects ingested 100 milligrams of caffeine. The study cautioned that the progression was not linear (meaning that more is definitely not better). But the test concluded that caffeine was a a performance enhancer.

According to physiologist Terry Graham, PhD, of the University of Guelph in Canada, “What caffeine likely does is stimulate the brain and nervous system to do things differently. That may include signaling you to ignore fatigue or recruit extra units of muscle for intense athletic performance.” And as to whether this better aids strength or endurance sports he adds, “What’s amazing about it is that unlike some performance-enhancing manipulation athletes do that are specific for strength or endurance, studies show that caffeine positively enhances all of these things.”

Is coffee a superfood?
This would depend, I guess. We’ve seen some downsides, and I’ve yet to mention two others. One, it’s addictive, and two, it’s been linked to insomnia. Performance-wise, sleep is crucial for your body to recover and recharge itself. No matter its benefits, if coffee negatively affects your ability to rest, it’s not going to help you much.

Yet, analyzing data—of 126,000 people and gathered over 18 years—has led to an almost astonishing number of likely health benefits, including lowering your risk of diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and colon cancer; improving mood; appeasing headaches; and even lessening the risk of cavities. In some cases, even the “all things in moderation” cliché was put to the test. For example, drinking one cup to three cups a day reduced type 2 diabetes risk by single digits, whereas drinking six or more cups per day slashed men’s risk by 54 percent and women’s risk by 30 percent. Maybe it’s just because coffee makes you want to get up and do something; those participants who reduced their risk may have exercised more. These findings have been routinely backed up by further studies. At least six studies indicate that coffee drinkers are up to 80 percent less likely to develop Parkinson’s disease, with three showing the more they drank, the lower the risk. Other research shows that compared to not drinking coffee, at least two cups daily can cut your risk of gallstones in half, provide a 25 percent reduced chance of contracting colon cancer, and offer a whopping 80 percent decline in liver cirrhosis risk. So abundant is this research that caffeine is added to certain medications to treat headaches, mood, asthma, and now Parkinson’s disease.

So is it time to hit Starbucks?
Since, as I’ve said before, this isn’t Politics class, I won’t tell you not to, but I’m certain that your local organic, fair-trade, mom-and-pop coffeehouse with the open mic on Thursdays will have better coffee anyway (wink). Back to the subject, coffee or tea certainly don’t seem to be harmful as a part of your diet. The problem with them, I suspect, is more often what we add to them. So if you enjoy your morning or afternoon (maybe skip the evening) ritual, then by all means indulge. Just keep it traditional, pure, simple, and forget the word Frappuccino was ever invented.