When, Wann, Cuando?
In your life, timing is often everything. Whether you are catching a train to an examination, or investing your savings. When executing a carefully planned surprise party for a loved one or fasting for a blood test. Yet, so few of us think about the dimension of time when it comes to food. In previous blogs I have discussed how you might consider engaging with food in terms of what to eat, how much to eat, how to say no to situations you feel create disharmony between you and food, as well as keeping track of the impact of food on you. Today, I shall speak about how you might engage with food along the dimension of time.
Many Clocks Ticking
If we look at the basic building blocks for good physical health – rest, exercise, diet – we can think of each of them as having a different clock driven primarily by the activity (or exercise) clock among other factors.
Early Man, Urban Woman
Earliest man hunted and gathered to eat, and then rested when he had eaten enough, so that he could prepare for his next bout of hunting and gathering. The bushmen of the Kalahari continue to live a similar lifestyle even today. Eskimos far removed from population centres do the same. As man evolved into being agrarian and started to rear crops and livestock, the cycle of rest, activity and nutrition changed. And, today, modern urban man’s clock cycle is quite different from that of all his ancestors. That would be fine if it were not the case that not being in tune with how early man lived often leads to self-created problems in physical and mental health. For the most part, the urban man or woman tends to have a cycle of 5-plus-2 or 6-plus-1 – working 5 or 6 days of the week with a day off from income generating tasks. On my farmland, there is a concept of hard work and easy work seasons, based on the weather and the sowing and reaping of crops – there is no real concept of ‘chill out over the weekend’ – Sunday and Monday are the same. I have urban fitness clients who, when they first come to me, I notice maintain a high level of discipline through the week only to let their guard down on weekends to undo a lot of the good results that they had built up with their Monday to Friday. Yet others have weekdays of undisciplined eating, drinking, inactivity and improper rest, with attempts to make up for it on weekends with heroic sporting endeavours.
You Too Can Maintain the Timing of a Professional Athlete
The professional athlete, if being trained intelligently, is probably the most in tune with the various training and nutrition clock cycles that she needs to keeps track of for different components of her development. The elite athlete needs to focus on achieving and maintaining world class performance. But for you and me, there’s no reason why we cannot achieve and maintain performance that makes us aces in our own worlds of regular urban life. Assuming we have to think about what we put into our bodies no differently from how a professional athlete does, there are many things to think about when we engage with food in the dimension of time.
Breaking up my 24 Hour Clock
I keep myself in tune with the following simple 24 hour clock to remain in a healthy steady state. It happens naturally, does not need to be forced, and is something that can be kept ticking away with adjustments based on only special infrequent events.
The 24 hours is split into 2 periods of 12 hours each. There is food consumption in one of them, but not in the other. If dinner starts at 8pm and finishes at 8:30pm there is almost always a 12 hour gap to breakfast at 8:30am the next day. The fasting period includes the sleep window. Unless there is dehydration, during the sleep window there is no need to hydrate. In fact over-hydrating disturbs sleep patterns with too many breaks in the middle of the night. Hydration commences within minutes of waking up and lasts until it is almost time to sleep. The activity or exercise window starts about 45 minutes after waking up.
Different Nutrients – Different Clocks!
We can look specifically through the food and drink consumption window keeping in mind the nutrient groups that I spoke about in a previous blog. Depending on which nutrient group you are looking at, its absorption rate, utilization rate and demands by the body will be quite different. Too little and the deficiencies show up in terms of health or activity ability. Too much in too short a time and the results can be nausea, bloating, lethargy, fat storage or even death. Even too much water in too short a time period is not good for you. For instance, you need to ensure that you get all the appropriate salts along with all-important water. I also spoke to you earlier about our sources of fuel where I mentioned that protein is best used for tissue building and not fuel. For that, you need to ensure that you get sufficient carbohydrates and fat in your diet too. But what about timing?
You can check if your gym trainer is uneducated about his trade if he sends you home saying “get home and have your carbs and protein”. In terms of premium fuel (carbohydrate) absorption the 2-hour window immediately post exercise is very important. However, you need to bear in mind that your recovery is not a 3 or 6 or 9 hour process. It is a 48 hours (even up to 72 hours) process.
Never mind that muscle tissue takes that long to breakdown, be flushed away and stronger ones rebuilt, the actual absorption, processing and utilization of protein is also not a rapid process. Unlike water which can be in and out of your system before you know it, your body is unlikely to process more than 10g of protein in an hour (that’s about 2 eggs). And, your body will not hold in its ‘pre-processing inventory’ more than 50g of protein. What that means is that you need to time your protein intake intelligently. Eating just one protein heavy meal a day is not enough. In addition, not all sources of protein are created equally. From some the absorption is very fast (e.g. whey) and from others slow and not very well (e.g. lentils, pulses).
Similarly, carbohydrates will be absorbed by your system differently depending on the sources. In addition, earlier, I spoke to you about your tiny carbohydrate tank – you try to fill it too much and the overspill becomes stored fat. This makes the timing of carbohydrates critical for both body fat control and activity performance. Too little and you are lethargic, too much and there goes your body fat %… up! (If you happen to be diabetic, you are already conscious about the timing of meals and, in particular, carbohydrates.)
Within your food and drink window itself, you ought to also look at the interaction between foods, in particular, for the absorption and utilization of micronutrients. For instance, if eggs are an important source of iron for you, should you be drinking healthy oxidant rich (but caffeine containing) green tea with your breakfast? [Quiz question, please answer with a comment below: Why does it make more sense to drink orange juice instead?]
It’s not Rocket Science
The details of nutrient timing can be fairly complex but need not be rocket science. When I mentor others I empower them with knowledge through individually tailored advice with rationale and explanations based on their individual activity clock and rest-recovery clock. In this chat, my aim was to highlight the importance of timing, and as part of your self-awareness, pull into your thoughts, the concept of time when thinking about food and drink – beyond the knowledge of when your local Starbucks is open for business. Instead of flitting from one meal to the next and eating each meal mindlessly, thinking about not just the nutrients, but also about their value to your body over time, will prepare you well for indulging in the pleasure of eating and drinking intelligently with benefits rather than harm to your body.
Since You Time Your Medication…
I would like to leave you today with one final thought. When feeling unwell, you take medication and expect to see results from anything between a few seconds to a few weeks – the timeline is heightened in your mind, with your focus on better health. Given that you are what you eat and can think of your consumption of good food as being the perfect on-going-medicine for good health, should you not be conscious of the timeline then too? Yes, timing is everything!
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.