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.
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Int J Obes (Lond). 2013;37(4):604-611.