If I had a dollar for every time that I reached into my bag or an available fridge and collected one of my many containers of food to eat, I'd have a lot of freaking dollars.
I've become really comfortable being 'that' girl. The girl that lifts things, doesn't accept food if it's offered, and seems to have an endless supply of food in her bag. I lugged my meals to class, my day job, a meeting, on the train, in the car. Despite my schedule, I'd have a perfectly prepared and tracked meal ready for the precise time that I'd need it.
I'm not talking about just one meal, like your average 'I made my lunch today' thing. I'm talking about four or five 'here's one that I made earlier' meals. Add to that another meal first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It's a lot of cooking, a lot of space and a lot of cleaning. Then there's the logistical challenges - negotiating the lack of refrigeration if I'm out all day in summer, sneaking off for a moment to quickly eat a meal in the bathroom at a long trial in court, attempting to inconspicuously eat my pre training peanut butter and raspberry jam laced concoction on a peak hour, standing room only train ... and that's not even the most ridiculous times.
I'm still fastidious about preparing my meals most of the time, because the food that I eat each day matters to me. But I'm not strict about it beyond the point of no return - I really like eating out and I can actually do that these days (yay!), free from the lingering anxiety that I used to shoulder around meals that I couldn't track or that might not be entirely comprised of 'clean' foods. I prioritise quality, nutrient dense foods, but I realise that flexibility isn't a cardinal sin. I'd like to enjoy food and life while I'm at it.
I have changed some of my default habits, though. For years, I'd subscribed to your standard bodybuilder's diet of a small meal every 2.5 to 3 hours. I liked it. It suited me at the time and I found it really effective for my competition prep. But I'm smart enough to realise that just because I usually did things one way, that doesn't make it the only way, or even the ideal way, to do things. Plus, my body and priorities had changed. I started to think of meal frequency and timing as tools that I could adjust to rebuild the foundations of my health.
I had a lot of questions.
Delving into the research on how often to eat
Is fasting 'good' or 'bad'? It depends.
I'd read a lot about the health benefits of time restricted eating and longer fasting periods from a number of credible sources, like Dr Rhonda Patrick and Dr Eric Serrano. For me, fasting protocols didn't seem right for my body at the time because:
I needed to increase my calories and nutrients, and I sensed that any eating patterns that had an element of restriction could quickly spiral into under-eating. I'm attuned to my mental monsters, and I'd rather not prod the beast.
I'd also read some of Dr Ralph Esposito's comments on fasting and hormones, and he'd mentioned that fasting, although it's an incredible tool for the gut and longevity, also puts stress on our bodies. No surprises, there. A lack of food can increase inflammation, raise cortisol and decrease thyroid and sex hormones. This makes sense, and in and of itself isn't an issue. But it raised alarm bells for me. I already had an amped HPA axis and dampened HPO axis. Plus, I really didn't like the idea of prolonging eating in the morning, because it completely disrupted my body's digestive schedule. And if my digestive system isn't doing it's thing, then my body isn't properly absorbing the nutrients that it needs and eliminating the things that it doesn't. That's a lose lose. [Read 'My unusual take on why breakfast is the most important meal of the day' to learn about the role of food in the morning to reset your circadian clocks, especially if you have poor sleep and chaotic hormones.]
Ok, so I didn't think I'd fast for prolonged periods. But that didn't rule out all changes to the timing of my meals.
Respect your GI tract's house keeper
Dr Serrano says that eating no more than four times a day - around every four hours - is ideal because it it matches the body's circadian rhythms. Our eating habits are just one thing that falls into our body's busy schedule. Our bodies need a break from foods because when we're not eating, our GI tract and organs shift into cleanse and clear mode. A pattern of activity called the migrating motor complex does the house keeping inside our GI tract - it keeps things moving and prevents a build up of bacterial populations on a 2 hour rotation. But like any professional cleaner, it puts the house keeping activities on hold if there's an unannounced guest - like another meal or snack - so that your body can handle the incoming food first.
This isn't just about the day time, either. How we eat (or don’t eat) in the 3 to 4 hours before bed sends all kinds of cues to our circadian rhythms. The digestive system isn't designed to remain open for business 24/7, and it has to put in more effort to digest a meal late at night. This disrupts and delays other essential functions that the body schedules before bed and while you sleep. I found it fascinating to learn that during sleep, the body regenerates the brain and restores lines of communication that make precursor substances for our sex hormones. In particular, sleep rejuvenates the HPA axis, and that's directly related to the production of adrenal hormones like DHEA, which is a precursor for testosterone. (Light bulb moment if your hormones are out of sync and you're not sleeping properly!) Dr Satchin Panda explains that if you keep this time free from food, it helps your body to digest and assimilate nutrients, minimise symptoms of bloating, acne, fluid retention, joint inflammation, poor concentration and fat loss plateaus, and set you up for better sleep – all possible side effects of uninvited bacteria and indigestible visitors setting up shop in your GI tract.
Six strategies I applied to eat more food, but less meals
I started to join the dots. If I'm attempting to restore my body's natural hormonal cycles, it could only help to restructure my eating habits to complement the other, related cyclical patterns that should be happening in my body. It's all interconnected, and if one rhythm is out, others are probably out, too. I decided to trial some changes but still retain some habits that seem to suit and benefit me. I didn't need to be dramatic and replace all of my eating patterns. For example, I didn't delay or eliminate my meals before or after training.
Here is the set of general strategies that I applied to my circumstances. If your body is out of sync and your belly isn't happy, you may find that one or more of these strategies help you. The main thing is to find a routine that you body likes.
1. Reduce meal frequency
I've changed my meal frequency quite a bit in the last 18 months. Instead of eating 6 or 7 small meals a day - ie, the average bodybuilder's protocol - I've condensed a similar amount of food and nutrients into 4 or 5 meals.
Easy, right? Just small, little changes.
Not quite. I didn't anticipate that I'd find it so difficult to eat less meals! After years of eating 6 + meals a day, I struggled to cap it at 4 meals. I'd become automated to hunt for food after about 2 or 3 hours. This default tendency took me by surprise. I realised that I'd become fixated on food - thinking about it, preparing it, timing it. It's like I'd unintentionally gravitate into the kitchen and pick at things. Things became almost impossible while cooking. I'd just developed a habit. Like all habits, breaking one and making another takes practice and patience.
There's a broader benefit here, too. Less meals equals bigger meals. There's more freedom to a bigger meal, and that makes things easier and often more delicious. Bigger meals can also help to recalibrate your hunger and satiety signals if your appetite is a bit out of control.
2. Don't drop calories - that's not the point
It's not about eating less food. For me, quite the opposite. Too little food at each meal, and you don't get your GI tract moving things along (and out).
3. Maintain consistent eating times, rather than random meals
After I set my daily schedule, I try to maintain similar eating times. Dr Panda explains that erratic eating across the day confuses the organs and compromises digestive function.
4. Avoid snacking!
I also (aim to!) avoid snacking. I'm not just talking about 'snack foods' like a morning muesli bar or a 3.30 pm chocolate fix. I'm also referring to the 'healthy' things that you might not consider snacking - some nuts here and there, a carrot and nut butter an hour after lunch, an apple, etc. Basically, snacking is any smaller bite of eating that happens in the middle of your main meals. This applies to all calories - even liquids like milk, sports drinks, sugar or sugar substitutes in your coffee or tea, and alcohol. It also includes things that you pop into your mouth on auto pilot, like mints. If it needs to be digested, it counts.
5. Longer food free time before bed
I'd developed a pattern of night time eating because I trained at night for years after commuting home from my day job. (Keep in mind that if you're training, that's going to alter things!) For most of 2016 and 2017, I routinely ate across 15 hours a day. I'd eat my first meal about 6.30 am, and my final bite around 9.30 pm after training from 7 pm to 8.30 pm. I'd then collapse into bed around 10.15 pm and sleep for 8 hours, before repeating. I sometimes had trouble falling asleep, and I speculated that my body resisted falling into a deep sleep to focus on digestion first. I also queried the impact of training so late on my quality of sleep, too.
Baby steps first. At first, I decided I'd stop eating no later than 1 hour before bed, and ideally 3 hours, so that my body had more time to do its job to digest and absorb nutrients and transition into cleanse and repair mode during sleep. My first milestone became not eating after 9 pm. I then tried to master a balance of 12 hours of eating and 12 hours of fasting. I've since changed my training time to earlier in the day, and this makes things a lot easier to eat my final meal around 2 hours before bed. I find that I can eat 2 hours before bed, even if it's a lot of food, and still keep my belly happy and sleep soundly. If it didn't, I'd change it.
6. Retained breakfast
I delve into the reasons behind this in my article, 'My unusual take on why breakfast is the most important meal of the day'. Basically, eating a meal high in protein and fats first thing in the morning is another tool that I applied to support my body's rhythms.
Some bite sized lessons (pun intended!)
If you're about to change your eating patterns to boost your digestion, that's great! Here's some practical tips to keep in mind.
Create realistic goals. There are rules, and then there's reality. Remember, baby steps are better than dramatic plans that just aren't feasible for you.
Steer clear of the kitchen if you're attempting not to eat at that precise moment in time! It's obvious, but I did it all the time. If somebody else in your house is cooking or eating after you've finished your final meal, are you going to be tempted to eat? Be honest about that, and be prepared for it.
If you're gravitating to the kitchen soon after a meal because you're restless, give it 20 minutes and do something. It easier to resist that initial temptation if you focus your attention on a task.
If you're feeling hungrier than usual, add a little more food (or even your usual snack) to your next meal.
A little bite of something leads to another bite. Ie, just one almond is never just one almond. Just one tiny square of chocolate is not just one tiny square of chocolate. Don't let you fool you.
Do I have this completely perfect each day? Not at all. I still snack sometimes. If my body tells me that I need to eat, I eat. I just aim to stay in my lane and optimise all things me. And even though there's steps ahead, back and in all other directions, I continue to learn, adjust and feel better for it.