Sign up for newsletter >>
When to Eat What
Photo by Buchen WANG / Unsplash

When to Eat What

There Are Right Answers, But Not One

The internet offers us hundreds of approaches to diet and exercise, addressed in blogs, social media ads, and apps. More and more are acknowledging the fact that different programs help different people. Some pay-to-play health apps divide people into three or four groups using personal quizzes—a method driven by the acknowledgment that there are different types of people but hindered by the need for a simple, marketable operation with low overhead. There are more than three or four healthy diets. This system of selling health and wellbeing has brought such a wide variety of one-size-fits-all answers (all for lining their creators’ pockets with minimal effort) that the big picture can come into view: there are as many detailed methods of living a healthy life as there are people.

However, there are pillars that support most, if not all, of these methods. I spoke with certified personal trainer, health coach, and nutrition coach Dan DiFigio about these pillars and the experimentation that every individual must go through to find their own solutions.


DeFigio states that there is no solid physiological standard to dictate what should be done before a workout. Each individual must try different things—a big meal, a small meal, or nothing at all—to find what really works for them. While there is evidence that repeatedly practicing a cardio routine before you break your fast in the morning leads to a small increase in the amount of fat burned, this will not work for everyone. “If the difference between a good run and a crappy run is whether you’ve eaten, by all means, eat,” DeFigio explains. To figure that out, each person must try both.

Intermittent fasting is a hot topic, and many of the aforementioned social media ads and apps offer short quizzes to dictate the correct ratio of eating hours to “clean” hours (the hours where one fasts). These ads assert that intermittent fasting is for everyone, a universal benefit. DeFigio disagrees. While everyone “fasts” to an extent while they sleep, there are some who will not benefit from the attempt to add extra clean hours to their day. There are: 1) people who struggle with blood sugar regulation, and 2) people who struggle with an addiction to carbohydrates. People who struggle with blood sugar, like those with diabetes, can significantly risk their health by avoiding food for extended hours. For those with carbohydrate addiction, fasting turns into a period of rest followed by overeating, negating any benefits and causing damage to their overloaded digestive system.

Intermittent fasting does work for plenty of people, but then comes the question: how many hours should one really eat and how many hours should one remain clean? While the common answer is sixteen fasting hours to eight eating hours per day, DeFigio asserts that “it’s really splitting hairs to worry about hours.” Whether you fast for sixteen, fifteen, fourteen, or ten, you are getting some time for your body to catch up with what you’ve eaten. As with the decision to work out before or after you’ve broken that fast, you must experiment to find the system that works best for you.


There is a bit more of a straight answer when it comes to post-exercise routines, but DeFigio reaffirms that these still vary between individuals. There is, clearly, an approximate thirty minute window to “maximize refueling” post workout. Because of a depletion of the stored carbohydrate glycogen that occurs during exercise, the body produces glycogen synthase enzymes. These aid in the digestion and synthesis of the food you eat within this approximate time window, making it perfect for refueling.

Professional athletes, whose entire living is made for a regimen of eating and training, will eat within this window religiously. These are people who are very active for at least ninety minutes almost every day. DeFigio will (generally) recommend to these athletes to eat meals within this window that contain 25% of their daily protein and three or four times as many carbohydrates by weight.

For the rest of us, meal recommendations vary. DeFigio will first determine how much protein is needed on a daily basis, and decide how many carbohydrates are needed beyond that, based on levels of activity. For example, someone who gets very little activity will generally be recommended a post-workout meal with an even amount of carbohydrates to protein—⅓ of the daily value to ⅓, making room for three square meals a day.


“As humans,” tells DeFigio, “the nuts and bolts of our physiology are similar, but everyone is different.” Each habit explained above will require the person reading it to try it, record the noticed pros and cons, and try something else. A good method of working out your personal system for health is to keep a food and exercise journal, keeping up with what you eat, how much, when you eat it, and how it makes you feel. The good news here is that this plan requires no subscription and no credit card, so you can try it totally risk-free. Go forth, armed with the foundation here and find what works for you. “While we can base nutritional science on some basic fundamental principles,” says DeFigio, “a lot of a good nutritional plan is an experiment.”