I’m kicking off the nutrition category with something that is relatively easy to apply. It’s relatively easy because it doesn’t require you to change your diet, nor does it take any time (it can actually save you time). Time-restricted eating, also called intermittent fasting, means having set hours in the day when you eat and when you don’t. Though you can find a lot of variations, for recovery, I like the daily version, in which you eat within a set time window. Restricting your eating window is good for daily cycling between growth and rest processes, confronting disruptive eating habits, and ensuring that you are using both glucose and fat energy for a healthy metabolism.
I started time-restricted eating because I’ve always struggled with my weight. Not that I thought I was fat, but a large part of my day was spent thinking about food and struggling to not overeat. What should I eat today? Is it too soon to eat? Am I tired because I need to eat? If I eat a handful of crackers, will that make me more or less hungry? On and on and on, resulting in yo-yo dieting that made me think more about the weight I was gaining or losing.
These days, I generally get a little hungry before I start eating, but being fat-adapted (able to burn fat for fuel) has completely changed my experience of hunger. My hunger used to be like an angry co-worker impatiently tapping their foot in my office, making it impossible to get anything done until I ate something. Now my hunger is more like a polite email pinging me to eat soon, which I may or may not notice depending on what I’m doing. If that seems unattainable to you, I used to think so too. The adaptation period can be a struggle, but the outcome is well worth the upfront cost.
Time-restricted eating also has its challenges. It can be hard to follow socially, especially if you eat late dinners with friends or meals with your kids (who should not follow this eating schedule). It can also promote muscle wasting (burning muscle for fuel) in people who aren’t exercising or fat-adapted. For pre-menopausal women, it can be detrimental to do continuously based on hormone needs. Like with any of the behaviors discussed in this series, if you try time-restricted eating, you should examine how it affects your goals and recognize that being dogmatic is likely not the best path.
Rule 1: I restrict my eating window to 6-8 hours (10:30-1:00 until 6:30), 4 times a week.
Like most people, I was not fat-adapted when I started, and I had to work up to it. Now, on days when I workout in the morning, I’ll eat a high-protein breakfast 60-90 minutes afterward to promote muscle synthesis. On the other days, I’m often not hungry at breakfast, and it’s hard socially to skip dinner, which is how I picked my eating window. People will quibble about when is the best eating window based on circadian rhythms, but it’s better to find something that you can stick to. I also like varying start times day-to-day, mainly to accommodate my schedule, but also so my body doesn’t get too adapted to one thing.
I tried one-meal-a-day (OMAD), but it sucked. Some people like it, but I found it hard to get enough calories in one meal without wrecking my digestion. However, if I can’t eat until dinner for whatever reason, that would no longer stress me out because I’m fat-adapted. I could spend a lot of time explaining how humans evolved to oscillate between storing and burning fat because it allowed us to steadily fuel our oversized brains. Instead, the short version is that if you feel like you have to eat every few hours, your metabolism has shifted too far towards the glucose-burning direction and too far from the fat-burning direction. You have different mitochondria in cells for each type of energy production, and if you don’t use them, you lose them. Consistent, nagging hunger and the inability to lose fat are just a few of many downstream consequences of an imbalanced metabolism.
Rule 2: I don’t eat within 3 hours of bed.
It takes a few hours to digest food. If food is still digesting when you go to bed, your sleep quality will suffer. Digestion first interrupts sleep in the early part of the night by keeping you from getting deep sleep, which is important for body recovery. Then in the latter part of the night, when you’ve run out of glucose, you produce a surge of cortisol (i.e., the stress hormone) to kickstart fat burning in the middle of REM sleep, which is important for brain recovery. This might sound familiar to people who wake up anxious in the early hours of the morning.
Of course, many people feel like they need to eat right before bed, either because they’ll wake up hungry or because they’re trying to grow muscle and think they need to be constantly digesting protein. Neither is true with a healthy metabolism, and you’ll seamlessly start burning fat without a big surge of cortisol or burning protein. After an adjustment period, if you still wake up anxious in the middle of the night, you might try reducing carbohydrates at dinner. If that doesn’t work, it’s on to practicing stress management techniques, some of which I’ll discuss in later posts.
In addition to time-restricted eating, I do multi-day fasts with only water (aka water fasts). I bring it up because many people seem fascinated by my water fasting routine, but that’s more of a “good stress” topic than a recovery topic. It does allow your body to do “deep cleaning” that eventually results in better recovery, but we can get into that later.
There’s a ton of information about time-restricted eating and intermittent fasting. I think this video by Dr. Berg is a good, informative starting point. He’s a keto/low carb advocate, so his recommendations for carbohydrates are below what I currently eat. When I started, however, I used a keto diet to facilitate the transition to more fat-adaptation. More on that in the next posts.