Nutrient Timing: When to Eat What for Maximum Nutrition
BY: Stacey Colino
As they say, timing is everything, and that goes for nutrition as much as anything else. Whether you’re heading to work, going to the gym or simply getting ready for bed, “being strategic about what, when and how much you eat can make a big difference in your energy and performance,” says nutritionist Heidi Skolnik, co-author of Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance and president of Nutrition Conditioning, a nutrition consulting practice in New York City.
Here’s how you can make nutrient timing work for you at every part of your day.
1. You need plenty of energy for an early-morning run or spinning class.
Nutrient timing Solution: You might be tempted to roll out of bed, slip on your exercise clothes and get out the door. But having a slice of toast with jam, half a banana or some crackers -- in other words, 15-25 grams of carbohydrates 15-30 minutes before exercising -- “will give you the energy you need to work harder and perform at a higher level for longer,” says Skolnik. “It also may help prevent some of that post-workout hunger that comes later in the day if you don’t eat,” she says.
2. You want to crank up your alertness for a midmorning brainstorming session at work.
Nutrient timing solution: Include some protein and complex carbs in your breakfast, advises registered dietitian Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and author of The Active Calorie Diet. “Protein will stimulate the release of dopamine, which increases alertness,” she explains. If it’s been hours since breakfast, consider having a small serving of low-fat Greek yogurt or a cheese wedge and some fruit, along with some water, an hour before the meeting. A well-timed cup of coffee -- 30 minutes before the event -- can also boost alertness, says Bonci.
3. You need help avoiding a midafternoon energy slump.
Nutrient timing solution: Rule No. 1: “Don’t have a huge meal for lunch and overload your stomach,” says Bonci, because that will make you feel sleepy and sluggish. “Keep the volume down and add protein to increase alertness,” she advises. Good lunch choices include: a salad with salmon or shrimp, some sushi, or a bean soup and a small salad.
4. You need sustainable energy for stop-and-go activities -- perhaps a tennis tournament or a marathon day of shopping.
Nutrient timing solution: Stick with healthy, well-balanced meals, as usual, and bring snacks and plenty of fluids to give yourself pick-me-ups during the event. “Figure out what your stomach can handle, and give yourself small amounts of carbs to refuel,” says Skolnik. Some simple, easy options: A small bag of dry cereal or trail mix, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut into quarters, some pretzels or fig bars.
5. You’re looking forward to a good night’s sleep.
Nutrient timing solution: To put yourself in the mood to snooze, have a small serving of sorbet, a mini bowl of cereal or a few graham crackers or animal crackers with a glass of milk 60-90 minutes before turning in, says Bonci. “Go with something with carbohydrates to boost production of calming serotonin,” she explains, and you’ll set yourself up to feel sleepy.
Prone to Heartburn?
If so, you might want to skip the pre-bedtime snack. Even if you can handle a little nibble before bed -- and some people with heartburn can -- it’s important to steer clear of large meals within three hours of bedtime. “The biggest issue is the amount of food you eat,” says Bonci. “You want to allow enough time for the food to leave the stomach.” It’s also wise to avoid buttery, fried, creamy or other high-fat foods in the evening and to include protein in your light evening meal -- “it helps keep the lower esophageal sphincter closed,” says Bonci.
So if you want to be at your best at work, in the gym or anywhere else, try using nutrient timing to your advantage. After all, says Skolnick, “It’s not just what you eat; it’s when you eat it.”
Watch this video on diet and heartburn from our sponsor
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.
Recipe of the Week
- Greek yogurt has twice the protein of regular yogurt because it takes 3 to 4 times more milk to make it. Celebrate June Dairy Month with Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries.
- Bok Choy, also known as Chinese cabbage or pak choi, has been grown in China for over 6,000 years. Choose firm stalks, avoiding brown spots and wilted leaves, and add to stir-fry.
- Apple skin is full of fiber & Alzheimer’s-disease-fighting antioxidants -- so eat it! Refrigerate in a plastic bag away from foods with strong odors; they absorb odors easily.
- Collards, mustard greens and kale are available in bags, pre-washed & chopped -- so they’re easy to steam or saute! Eat your greens as a side dish or in quesadillas, soups & stews.
- Avocados are rich in 20 nutrients and great beyond guacamole. Chop for a ham, egg and cheese wrap; slice for a deli roast beef sandwich; cube and toss into linguini and shrimp.
- Black-eyed Peas: Fresh, canned and frozen varieties are all nutrient-rich options -- making it easier to eat your daily veggies. Rinse and drain canned peas to cut down on salt.
- Ugli Fruit, beautiful benefits! Peel & eat for fiber & vitamin C. Choose fruit heavy for size; dents normal and color not important. Store on counter 5 days or refrigerate 2 weeks.
- Radicchio, also known as Italian chicory, is high in vitamin K for bone health. Great in salads: Choose bright, tender leaves; avoid brown or limp ones. Refrigerate up to 3 days.
- Cherimoya, a high-fiber tropical fruit, tastes like a mix of strawberry and mango. Choose firm, unblemished fruit, cut in wedges and spoon out creamy flesh.
- Kale in lentil soup is a double dose of New Year’s luck! Round-shaped lentils symbolize coins; kale, paper money. Both are packed with antioxidants for a year of healthy fortune.
- Tea is native to China, but Americans invented tea bags and first drank iced tea at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Enjoy hot and reap health benefits from both black & green tea.
- Dried Plums (formerly prunes) may help prevent cancer and decrease inflammation. Slice fruit, stuff with cheese and walnuts, and wrap in prosciutto to make quick party appetizers.
- Oatmeal month is officially January. Cook breakfast oatmeal with 1% milk for extra protein, calcium and vitamin D -- or enjoy whole-grain oatmeal raisin cookies as a smart snack.
- Spices and herbs add antioxidants to every dish. One tsp. ground cinnamon contains as many antioxidants as 1/2 cup blueberries; 1 tsp. yellow curry as many as 1/2 cup red grapes.
- Fish, the best source of omega-3 fats for heart and brain health, may even help ward off depression. Mix canned white tuna, salmon and sardines for an omega-rich seafood salad.
- Orange juice is filled with immune-boosting nutrients that fight colds and the flu: vitamins C and B6, folate, potassium and magnesium. Choose 100% juice with no added sugar.
- Walnuts are a significant source of plant-based omega-3 fats. These fats -- also in ground flaxseed, canola oil and edamame -- provide many heart-healthy benefits.
- Pear, apple and Asian pear slices + yogurt-based dips = winning strategy for game-day parties. Combine Greek vanilla yogurt with chocolate-hazelnut spread for a fast, healthy dip.
- Pumpkin and sweet potato -- fresh, mashed or canned -- adds disease-fighting antioxidants to waffles and pancakes. Use whole-wheat flour to double your fiber and nutrient intake.
- Snack smart to achieve weight loss goals. Choose fast and fully edible fruits like grapes, apples, persimmon and kiwi. Yes, fuzzy kiwi skin is edible! Simply wash and rub dry.
What kind of water do you usually drink?