I have been recently asked from a reader, ‘When is the best time to have treats or junk food?’
It’s a great question and it is surprisingly difficult to answer, but I’ll give it my best shot.
The cop out answer
Most ‘treats’ and ‘junk food’ are unhealthy – we’re talking candies, pastries, fried foods, etc. From a purely nutrition perspective, these unhealthy items are never going to suddenly become healthy just because you changed whenyou ate them.
That being said, these items may provide other benefits to your health outside of the raw nutritional value. They may make you more happy – the food reminds you of home. They may help you socialize – it is your one night in a month where you can go out with your friends and relax. They may keep you sane – you’ve been dieting for too long and you need a small break. They may help your business and livelihood – you have an important business meeting and it is their favorite food and you want to be respectful.
Whatever the reason, there will be times where you are eating some foods that aren’t quite as healthy. And that’s OK (within reason – I recommend no more than 10% of the time).
The question then becomes, I know I will be eating these items, can I change the timing of when I eat them in order to minimize the downsides?
For sugar heavy foods
Whenever you eat a carbohydrate-rich food, your body releases insulin. Insulin is a key that opens up the doors to your cells and allows the digested carbohydrate to enter. High blood sugar is dangerous to the body and we want to move it into our cells as quickly as possible.
In the morning, your insulin sensitivity is very high. This means that if you release a small bit of insulin, all the doors open up and it is very easy for the blood sugar to quickly come down.
As the day goes on, your insulin sensitivity decreases. By the time the night rolls around and you’re out at the club at 2 am, your insulin sensitivity is like that of a diabetic. Your body can’t process carbohydrates well and needs to release mega doses of insulin to get the same response.
From this bit of biology, we see that the best time to have sugar heavy foods is in the morning. Have a weekend brunch with some waffles and syrup. Drink your juice. Have a donut. Whatever your sugar craving, put it in the morning.
For fat heavy foods
All of our body systems have internal clocks. We have a master clock (in our brain) and peripheral clocks (in your organs). If the two get out of sync, inflammation and other health issues arise.
Recent research has shown that high saturated fat foods (like pastries and fried foods) will cause your clocks to get out of sync. And the effects are worse at night compared to the morning.
From this bit of biology, we see that the best time to have fat heavy foods is in the morning. Have your weekend brunch waffles with some fried chicken. Have some hash browns. Have a fried egg. Whatever your fat craving, put it in the morning.
What about exercise?
It’s true that people with high levels of physical activity get more wiggle room with their nutrition than those who are sedentary. For example, I’ve worked with athletes who are training 4+ hours a day and burning over 6,000 calories. I don’t really care if they eat a whole pizza each day (2,000 calories) if their remaining 4,000 calories are all high quality.
On the other hand, if someone is eating a standard 2,000 calorie diet and chooses to eat a whole pizza, that means they have no other calories in a day to get the nutrients their body requires for optimal health and performance.
Physical activity also has the benefit of temporarily boosting insulin sensitivity, even if done later in the day. I like to tell people they need to earn their carbs. It’s OK to drink a sports drink (basically soda) if they’re training hard. Their insulin sensitivity is upregulated from the exercise, and they need the extra fuel anyway. A case can certainly be made to have some simple carbohydrates (like sugar products) before, during, or after exercise.
For physically active individuals, you get the added latitude of being able to consume a sugar treat around an exercise session with minimal downside.
For me, exercise is a big investment. I don’t like to feel like I wasted it. I want to get the most out of every single one of my exercise sessions. If you agree with that sentiment, you will only put high quality nutrients before, during, and after your activity session. This will ensure you get the biggest bang for your buck.
I can’t tell you how many people I see blow their entire program because they worked out a few times and felt like they ‘earned’ some indulgent meal.
Don’t eat your unhealthy meal after a workout, you’ll lessen what you get out of it.
The best time to eat your indulgences is in the morning.
If you have a sweet tooth and are physically active, you can put a small bit of sugar around an exercise session. But don’t overdo it. You will lessen what you get from that session and it’d be a shame to waste your time and efforts.
Thanks for reading this week! I truly appreciate the time you give to read these articles. If you ever want to give me some feedback, or just say ‘Hello’, feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you.