Eating healthy seems to be a daunting endeavour for many. It’s no secret that food dictates a lot in our fitness life, from the way we feel, to how we look to how well we can progress towards our goals. Your personal trainer says it, your friends says it, the internet says it: it’s all about your food.
So you go on and learn about how to eat healthy. You have the basics down, no refined sugars, lots of veggies, quality protein, moderate the alcohol bla bla bla nothing of this is news. What really is interesting is HOW we choose to eat, and I’m talking specifically on how to structure your meals throughout the day. I’ve heard it so many time! “Oh I know what to eat, it’s just that *insert whatever excuse you want for not eating healthy*”.
We all have lives with different obligations, schedules, restrictions and whatnot. All of our lifestyles are different. Which means that what may work for someone will not necessarily work for you!
In this post I’ll show you 3 ways to structure your meals. This is not going to be about what to eat, but how to plan your food intake according to the different situations you come in. You might eat differently when you're on holidays than when you're at home busy balancing a full time job, a social schedule and dare I say a training routine.
These different strategies can also come in handy when altering body composition. Apart from playing around with calories, you can also structure you meals differently for optimal muscle gain or weight loss.
One of the key points of healthy eating is to regulate your hormones. When you eat, the main hormones affected are insulin (lowers blood sugar) and glucagon (increases blood sugar). When we do not eat frequently it causes spikes in blood sugar which in the long run can yield health problems like diabetes.
We all sleep at least a few hours a night right, so we know that we all go through at least one big fluctuation a day. What is unhealthy is to go through numerous hormonal fluctuations a day! You will see that in all the strategies, there is always only one big fluctuation in hormones, meaning that you won’t leave many break in between your meals, which keeps the hormones stable.
The Rules That Must be Followed
Your eating schedule may vary, but food remains food. One way will not allow you to eat refined sugars more than another. There are a few general eating rules to abide by.
1. Break your fast with a balanced meal to reduce insulin spikes
The most important one of all. One of the rationals behind fasting is that your nutrient uptake is better once you eat again. This means that you get more out of what you eat. If you break your fast with something healthy like a well balanced meal or smoothie, that’s perfect. On the other hand if you eat cereals or other junk foods that is more problematic since you are now getting more of the unhealthy outcomes of such foods.
My recommendation for the first meal of your day is to include veggies, protein and healthy fats. Only after you’ve eaten this you can add carbs. An example of this could be an omelette with bell peppers and spinach with a side of almonds or half an avocado. THEN have some carbs in the form of fruits/oatmeal/brown rice/quinoa/yams or sweet potatoes.
2. Fuel foods vs fun foods
Automate your grocery shopping and meal prepping. How? Remember my 90/10 rule where you eat healthy 90% of the time and have fn 10% of the time. Well one way to always eat healthy…is to eat the same thing. I have been eating the same meal over and over again for almost three months and to be honest I will most likely keep eating it for a long time.
What’s important here is to find a meal you love. I will post in more detail mine later but the gist is this: kale, red kale, dark kale, spinach, red chards (all classified as super foods with tons of nutrients), tomatoes and bell peppers. I put ALL of these in the food processor which gives me a shredded salad packed with healthy stuff. I have protein in the form of white fish, chicken and turkey. My carbs come from brown rice or quinoa or yams/sweet potatoes. That’s less than 15 ingredients. My grocery shopping and meal prepping are now very efficient because I know exactly what to get and how to cook it.
And now, when I want to have fun, I either do another grocery trip for a fun meal or I go to a friends house and not even worry about cooking and still enjoy it.
This way of thinking about food has helped me tremendously in being more efficient with my meal prepping.
You can always add some different ingredients in you healthy meals, I add cucumbers, celery, mushrooms and other fun stuff from time to time but I always get those 15 ingredients on a weekly basis.
The last one is about water. You can drink whenever you want throughout the day, regardless of the strategy you use. I recommend drinking AT LEAST 2 litres of water for the ladies and 3 litres for the gentlemen.
Carry a water bottle around with you. Bring it to your meetings. As long as you don't chug it and make gargling sounds no one will care.
Travel a lot for work? Pack a litre water bottle with you and try to drink it twice during the day.
Hydration is an often overlooked aspect of our health which has a direct impact on our day to day performance.
So drink up guys!
4. Where does alcohol come in?
Alcohol is another form on fun food. Hell, it can be super fun and make for an amazing night when the time is spent with the right people. I drink on a weekly basis, usually at my parents. They're french, and avoiding or refusing a glass of wine is as close to blasphemy as it gets for them.
Having one or two or even 3 drinks a week will not hurt your progress unless you're a high level athlete days away from an important event.
The problem is that for a lot of us, one or two or three drinks can easily turn into seven, twelve or twenty! Enjoying life and all the impromptu situations it brings is in my opinion the cornerstone of a happy life. So what happens when these situations happen over and over? Simply repeat the following line:
“You must choose between what you want now and what you want most”
This really helps when one has a busy social life. This will make you realize what you are willing to sacrifice in order to reach your ideal goal. This is of course assuming you want to live a long and healthy life.
You will notice that by repeating this to yourself, you will actually enjoy the events even more. When on a boat cruise with friends, what you want most might (and very well should be) making the most out the trip. So you can enjoy all it’s aspects without holding back. When you come back from said trip, what you want most will change so you can adjust your “fun” eating accordingly.
5. To calorie count or not to?
In the years I’ve been a trainer, I have rarely counted calories with clients as I’ve seen it do more harm than good. A good reminder is to ask yourself if the food in front of you can either be picked, dug, or killed. If the answer is no to all of them, it’s most likely processed and you can find healthier foods around.
You can also use the hand portion size control. When plating your food, remember:
- Protein: the size of your palm
- Carbs: half a handful of cooked (ball park it, please don’t put cooked food in your hand)
- Fats: the size of your thumb
- Veggies: one big handful
These measurements are for the ladies. Gents, simply double all portions.
Keep in mind this may have to vary according to your goals and dietary preferences or type of diet you are on.
Now that we have covered the basics, here are 3 various ways of structuring your meals!
Eating Strategy #1: Eating at regular intervals throughout the day
Perhaps the most generic way you have been told to eat. Eat similar sized, balanced meal throughout the day. Nothing very exciting with this one. The general rule is to eat every 3 hours since blood sugar tends to decrease anywhere between 2-4 hours after a meal.
If this for you?
This method works best when you are in an environment that has routine to it. After all, if you're going to be eating a regular intervals, you need some sort of routine right?
Some people like this method when they are on holidays since they have all the time they need. I find that from personal experience with my clients, busy professionals don't fare too well with this one since they are always busy doing something during the day or are stuck in meetings after meetings.
Working split shifts, this method works really well for me since I can eat before and after each of my shifts and a few times in between.
Another thing that bothers me with this one is that you will be constantly thinking about your next meal. No matter how much you meal prep, you only have 3 hours between meals which I find to be a little short.
Do you like meal prepping? because you will need it to make this method work for you. The biggest problem people encounter here is they forget to meal prep, come home at night wanting to eat something and end up ordering take out or going out for food.
I am not trying to put down this strategy, in fact it’s the one I use most frequently. One caveat though is that my job AND hobby involve planned nutritional intake. I actually plan my work AROUND my eating habits and my coworkers/clients accept that because they know that I need it to reach my goals. So unless you can tell your boss “yo hold up I’m gonna pass on this quarterly meeting to down some prime chicken and broccoli” I would think twice about this one. (if you do try this with your boss please send me a video of it)
Cheat meals are part of any healthy habits. They are fun, they taste delicious and they can work in our diet if we approach them smartly. With this eating frequently thing, people can get a little bit too excited about cheating “just a little” every single meal. Yea it’s only a square of chocolate at lunch, a beer at 3pm and half a piece of pie at dinner, but when you look at it from a daily perspective, that’s a lot of cheating. Refer to the rule #2 above to see how you can enjoy your cheat meals.
This is a good to eat for people that have a solid routine that enables them to eat frequently. Being on holidays and weekends would be the best time to try it. If you know that you work for hours on end, this one isn't for you, but fear not, the next strategy is!
Eating Strategy #2: Intermittent fasting
I love this one!!!
The premise is very simple: Eat all your food in a certain time window that is no more than 8 hours (guys) and 10 hours (ladies).
Example: You only eat between noon and 8pm. Or between 1pm-9pm.
Many people are ALREADY doing this without knowing it! A lot of my client always tell me how they are so busy so they don't eat anything until 2pm or 3 pm. And in my head I’m like “Oh my god that’s amazing!” But then they tell me WHAT they eat and 99% of the time break all of the rules that I will outline below. This is why they aren’t seeing any changes.
Why this is my favourite one
What I love most about it is that you are free to think about other things than food for most of your day.
When I eat this way, I wake up, have a dark coffee (on top of waking you up, coffee is a fantastic natural hunger suppressor). I then do my morning shift, then I workout in a fasted state (you are allowed 10g of BCAAs every 2 hours once you wake up until you eat. I will not dive in the details of fasted working out but there are TONS of advantages to it). After I work out, it’s usually 12:30pm-1pm and now, oh man, NOW it’s chow time baby.
I go home and eat like a king. Note I said king and not unhealthy-pizza-monster-king. You always, always, always break your fast with the most nutrient dense foods. Since your body is in a prolonged fasting state, it make better use off all the nutrients it takes in when you eat. My general rule for my first meal is eat a salad first (salads always have 5-10 different veggies in them), then your protein and healthy fats, and then your healthy, slow carbs.
Because you eat less frequently you actually eat more per sitting. Typically 3 meals within the feeding window is good. Your first meal will be the biggest, the second meal will be a bit smaller and the third meal will usually the smallest. If you want to do the reverse that’s fine as long as you respect the feeding window.
Because of this structure, you may actually eat LESS per day than the previous strategy even though you are eating more per sitting.
I can see your main concern from a mile away: “I can’t wait that long before I eat, it’s too long without food”… I am going to be 100% transparent with you: you will feel hunger AT FIRST, maybe for a week but rarely more than 10 days. After that, your body get’s into a cycle and is used to it.
That’s why it’s very important to pick a feeding window and stick to it on the long term. If you eat from 1pm-9pm one day and then 11am-7pm the next day and keep varying the window, your body can’t get used to it and you will be hungry a lot.
If you are a social butterfly and enjoy dinner outings, I highly recommend having a later window like 2pm-10pm that way you can still enjoy the later dinners.
Another bonus of this strategy: cheating. Or should I say lack of cheating. Because you are eating in a shorter feeding window, you will feel more full during it which decreases your need/want to cheat. Plus here, with the typical 3 meals, odds are you will only want to cheat on 1 of the meals versus the more numerous opportunities of the previous strategy.
I find this works well for very busy people because they can just forget about food for their whole morning and early afternoon and then eat. just make sure what you are eating is complying with the 5 rules mentioned above.
You can also use this to tone/shred/cut/lose weight whatever you call it. The fasting coupled with the usually smaller amount of calories ingested will show results quicker than the other two ways.
Strategy #3: Calorie Cycling
The idea: consume less calories for a certain amount of days and then eat a surplus of calories for a day.
The parameters of low cal and high cal vary a lot for this one, I’ve read about people doing high calories on training days and low calories on rest days, low calories on a set amount of days regardless of training and then a high calorie day, there’s even people that go for weeks doing so with 3 weeks of high calories and a week of very low calories.
Again, the importance here is for you to decide what works best for you.
The rational behind this strategy is to force your body to use up it’s energy stores during the lower calorie days and then replenish the stores on the high calorie day.
This strategy is the trickiest, because during the low cal and high cal days, YOU STILL NEED TO EAT HEALTHY. Most people think that it’s a 3-4 days of dieting and then a whole cheat day….I will pull out my hair and pugnaciously throw it in your general direction if that’s you. The refeed day is perhaps the most important day of all and needs to the healthiest.
How can this strategy work for you?
If you are super busy, like running around insanely all day, I would recommend coupling this with the intermittent fasting.
During your low cal days, eat during your feeding window, easily packed meals such as veggies and nuts, and try to get at least a decent meal in there. Then on the weekends, when you want to hang out with friends or chill out completely, you can eat more than usual guilt free because you know your weekly meal planning allows you to do so.
I’ve seen people do the whole 5 week days low cal and weekends high cals with great success.
The only draw back to this that I find hard to deal with is that sometimes, your high calorie days may not fall on the days you want to. Depending on how you structure them, it will be a rolling schedule: sometimes your re-feed day will be on a Friday or Saturday and all will seem amazing.
Sometimes though they will fall on weekdays! Which means your low calorie day could be on a Friday or Saturday! Not too ideal for the socially inclined folks. Like I said though, you can do 5five days low calories and then two days high calories to coordinate with the weekend.
Eating is so prevalent around us that we sometimes forget how important it can be. In a well though out training program, a lot of effort is put into the nutrition aspect. For trainers, making a workout plan comes easy, we know what to look for, for the most part people follow their routine diligently.
But when it comes to food, it becomes a lot harder and that’s where I really like to think. When following a training plan, you may go to the gym four to five times a week, but you will eat anywhere between 15-30 meals!
And the best part about all this is that what you eat actually has a lot more effect on your health than how much you train. You cannot out train a bad diet. I tried. You tried. They tried. It never worked. So you now see the importance of making smart decisions when it comes to how we eat.
The most important criteria to follow when planning our your nutrition is: will this work with my lifestyle? There are solutions to everyone, and you will find what works best for you.
Enjoy the food,