As adults we are taught to eat when it is time to eat – first thing when we wake up before leaving for work, during our lunch hour, at dinnertime. And, if you’ve ever been on a diet you probably followed specific rules regarding when you should eat and when you should put your fork down. And though all of these time-based schedules for eating contradict intuitive eating – eat when you are hungry (hello simplicity!) – there may be something to meal timing if your goal is weight loss…
Animal studies suggest when we eat may be just as important as what we eat. And, a recent human study examining the timing of meals and weight loss while on a Mediterranean diet + physical activity intervention provided support for this meal timing theory. Study authors found those who were described as “late lunch eaters” (before 3 pm) lost significantly less weight than “early lunch eaters” (after 3 pm) though reported calorie intake was similar between both groups. Another pattern that is important to note – those who ate lunch late also ate dinner late compared to the early lunch eaters.
Though you may want to start setting your alarm clock for mealtime, keep in mind that this study showed an association, not causation (they didn’t intervene and change meal times and then analyze the results). And therefore, it is possible that those who ate lunch early had specific lifestyle characteristics, genetics or sleep patterns that contributed to their changes in weight while on this diet and exercise intervention. Plus, they didn’t report changes in body fat (though they did take these measures) so it isn’t clear if the early eaters lost more fat or muscle or both. But, here’s how you can take this new study and additional research (plus my observations) on this topic and figure out what is best for you:
- If you have disordered eating/an eating disorder, follow the advice of your RD regarding meal timing.
- Shift your food intake to earlier in the day because, eating earlier may prevent bingeing or overeating later on. Clients who have a skewed eating pattern – dieting during the day and eating as little as possible – tend to overeat at night (and make less than wise choices). So, make sure you actually eat meals (at least 3 per day).
- Eating more often seems to decrease hunger and improve appetite control.
- Eating multiple times per day will not make you burn more calories.
- Eat a good amount of protein at each meal to preserve muscle during weight loss (30 grams or about the size of your palm; more than this if you have little hands). The more calories you cut the more protein you need to hold on to your muscle.
- If you hate breakfast, skip it. But, eat a meal as soon as you are hungry (I don’t care if it isn’t “mealtime”) and eat your lunch whenever you are hungry after that.
- Eat your meals when you are hungry (or a snack to hold you off if you are eating with others at a set time). There’s something to be said for paying attention to your body. If you just ate lunch and you are hungry an hour later, than eat. Have a little faith in your hunger cues.
J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2011; 8: 4.
Int J Obes (Lond). 2013;37(4):604-611.
Years ago hitting the gym and throwing around some steel was considered the most critical aspect of sports performance training. However, in more recent years a more comprehensive model of performance has developed based on decades of research on nutrition, sleep, psychology and several other critical components of an athlete’s training regimen. As a sports dietitian with an Exercise Science degree and CSCS, I focus mainly on food & supplements though I sometimes discuss training. But lately I’ve found that I’m also talking about the importance of sleep with my athletes. This topic comes up once I realize they are too tired to plan and prepare their food. Days of sleep deprivation also leads to poor food choices. If an athlete is tired and hungry, caring about good nutrition will be thrown on the back burner while finding food fast becomes the main priority. Quick and cheap turns into a double cheeseburger with fries. And, aside from failing to implement all aspects of their nutrition plan, skimping on sleep also interferes with an athlete’s training and performance. Studies show chronic sleep deprivation leads to:
- decreased sub max and maximal lifts in the weight room
- delayed visual and auditory reaction time
- slowed decision making
- impaired motor functioning
- reduced endurance
- increased fatigue, decreased energy
- exercise feels harder than it normally is (increased rating of perceived exertion)
- less efficient glucose metabolism
- reduced leptin and increased ghrelin
- decreased growth hormone secretion
- increased risk of injury
- elevated cortisol levels which may interfere with tissue repair and growth
- impaired insulin sensitivity in fat cells = more fat in your bloodstream (over time this may contribute to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease).
- decreased production of leptin, a protein produced in fat cells that tells your brain you have enough energy (fat) stored away so there’s no need to gorge yourself on food. Low leptin = you get hungry and eat.
According to research presented by Cheri Mah,a Stanford University sleep expert:
- one night without sleep is the equivalent of being legally intoxicated
- 4-5 hours of sleep for 4 days = 24 hours awake = legally intoxicated
- 4-5 hours for 10 days = 48 hours awake
Mah’s 8 Strategies to Improve Sleep and Recovery:
- Adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep. Athletes need 8-10 hours of sleep (and getting in bed at 10 and waking up at 6 doesn’t mean you are getting a full 8 hours since it takes a while to actually fall asleep).
- Establish a consistent sleep schedule.
- Sleep like a caveman. It should be dark, quiet and cool. All electronics should be off and silent (or program in numbers for emergency calls only and set your phone for these emergency calls). All small lights on electronics should be covered up as these can interfere with sound sleep.
- Adults should only sleep when tired. If unable to sleep after 45 minutes, it is wise to get up and do a non-stimulating activity for 15 minutes (reading) then return to bed.
- Establish a 20-30 min routine before bed that includes non-stimulating activity. No computers, TVs or video games.
- Refrain from alcohol which impairs your sleep quality and fragments sleep preventing the deep sleep that is so critical for recovery (this is why people complain of being exhausted the day after they drink).
- Avoid heavy food, any foods that could cause heartburn, spicy foods etc.
- Take 20-30 minute power naps and pre-game naps (unless these interfere with the ability to sleep at night). Mah has found this improved alertness by 54%, improved performance by 34%
Matthew Edlund, M.D. takes it even further with the notion of morning people performing better during the day, night owls performing better at night, and both having to combat jet lag (each 1 hour time zone change takes a person 1 day to adjust; this is why West Coast teams beat East Coast NFL teams on Monday Nights). Check out Edlund’s article here. Sleep affects several aspects of training and performance (as well as body weight). Any athlete who wants to feel their best and reach peak performance should take a comprehensive approach to training which includes sound sleep habits.