Nutrition Timing: Myth or Truth

Writer Joyce Yip | November 5, 2015

‘Ten Superfoods to Eat Pre-Workout’ and ‘The Best Time to Consume Fruit’ – these are just a few of the stories that pop up on my Facebook News Feed from the likes of Vogue, Marie Claire and Elle that drive health-wannabes into utter confusion. This is on top of the three chain emails my mother has sent last week on what is the best thing to drink upon waking (the arguments are tied between barley water, lemon water and nothing) as well as a long-running debate among friends about whether or not to eat before exercising.

Too many open-ended questions, not enough answers.

The advent of social media and the Internet boosted fad diets sparked by the bestsellers that promise Jillian Michael’s body in 30 days to daily information on what to do to get a supermodel body. But as the average person becomes savvier about good fats and calorie intake, the latest obsession is now ‘time’; and how to maximise nutrition throughout the day.

Though the concept of nutrition timing has already been around for five years, it evolved from a scientific study of insulin sensitivity (which dictates the optimal time for consuming carbs and protein) in the morning as well as pre- and post-workout to more rigid regimes based on practices from different schools that include all food groups at all hours of the day. For city-goers who have limited time to look after their health, nutrition timing is an easy way out. But does it actually work? AsiaSpa speaks to representatives from TCM, holistic practices, nutrition science and Ayurvedic medicine to find out.

Judy Xu, Holistic Wellness Coach:

“Follow your Yin and Yang”

While Xu believes that all diet regimes should be tailor-made to each person depending on individual body type, genes, diet, environment, and especially crucial in TCM, the health of his/her spleen (which she calls the body’s dehumidifier), she has general rules for what and when to eat based on the activity of our 12 meridians. 

5am–7am: big intestine is the most active/perfect time to wake up and cleanse the system with a glass of warm lemon water to stimulate bowel movements.

7am–9am: stomach is the most active/ ideal for a big breakfast that can be easily broken down as the digestive track isn’t fully awake yet. Think oatmeal, congee, soup or juice.

“When juicing, it’s important to remember that fruits have high GI, so opt for a low GI vegetable juice when possible,” adds Xu. But this also depends on the individual because vegetables are very ‘cool’; so when you find that your stool is becoming loose or you’re starting to have diarrhoea, the juice is too ‘cool’ for you.”

11am–1pm: heart is the most active/ take a 20-minute power nap or use  part of your lunch hour to meditate.

3pm–5pm: your body is at the highest temperature yet with the lowest energy levels / drink some cooling tea (ie: chrysanthemum, green tea, burdock) to boost urinary activity.

5pm–7pm: the perfect time to have dinner, which should be mainly vegetables and healthy carbohydrates (as both only take four hours to digest) and only small amounts of meat (which can take up to eight or nine hours to digest) since our digestive systems are less active at night.

Pre-sleep: while it’s not recommended to eat before sleep, foods high in tryptophan like soy, banana, dairy, rice, cashews, walnuts, sesame, pumpkin, pistachio and longan can be taken in moderation.

11pm–1am: sleep. 

Xu also suggests working out on an empty stomach and being very selective of our post-meal beverages as not all teas have digestive qualities, some will actually destroy the minerals in our food. Her final tip? Eat ‘yang’ foods like meat, eggs, poultry, fish and vegetables that grow in the ground when the sun is out, and ‘yin’ foods such as fruits, dairy and pastas at night.

Monica Proctor, Nutritionist & Health Counsellor:

“Nutrition timing should only matter for elite athletes”

For Monica Proctor, nutrition timing should only matter for hard-core athletes. And her advice for the average person who just wants to shed a few pounds or be healthier? Focus on high-density nutrients and total daily carb intake.

Aside from general rules like keeping sugar low, practising a 20:80 alkaline to acidic foods diet and maintaining a paleo-style high vegetable to protein ratio  (because proteins are more difficult to digest), she avoids dairy products and  juice cleanses.

“Personally, I think humans aren’t biologically designed to drink animal milk. Similar to gluten, it is very hard to digest and can easily lead to a leaky gut and other food intolerances,” she says. “Cleansing is also a definite no because where’s the fibre gone? Adding chia seeds and coconut will slow down the sugar, but there still isn’t any fibre; and if you think about it, we didn’t have blenders ancestrally, and all that sugar will just cause you to lose muscle mass, which is what you need to boost metabolism.”

Proctor also advises us to take all fruits – acidic or not – before meals because the body will be busy digesting protein post-meal and can use the enzymes from the fruit in the process. When fruit is taken after meals, however, an imbalance in gut fluids may ensue, causing fermenting sugar to sit on top of the stomach instead.

So rather than obsessing with nutrition timing, Proctor says opting for a lifestyle change is more efficient: “Instead of eating foods to help you sleep, like drinking a glass of milk, for example, I would say try turning off your electronics an hour before sleep instead. That’s much more practical.”

Nutrition timing doesn’t matter unless you’re an elite athlete
~ Monica Proctor