The adage, ‘timing is everything,’ applies to mealtime, too. Research shows when you eat might be just as important as what you eat. This doesn’t mean you have license to ignore calories, but it is essential to be mindful of when those calories are consumed.
“Given the epidemic of obesity and diabetes, it is clear the current lifestyle recommendations are not effective,” says Frank A.J.L. Scheer, PhD, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Medical Chronobiology Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “We need to expand our tool kit. Meal timing appears very promising.”
A 2017 study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, found meal timing had an impact on BMI. Researchers noted those with the lowest BMIs tended to fast for more than 18 hours between supper and breakfast, eat breakfast and plan for their largest meal first thing in the morning. (In comparison, those with shorter fasting periods between supper and breakfast, breakfast skippers and those who ate their largest meals at supper had higher BMIs).
Try these five strategies to time your meals for maximum impact:
START THE DAY WITH PROTEIN
Think twice before noshing on grab-and-go items like sugary cereals and calorie-laden muffins, and aim for a high-protein first meal. Sweet foods give you a quick energy spike, but the rapid drop in blood sugar that follows will make you want to curl up under your desk for a nap. Research shows eating 45 grams of protein at breakfast is optimal to trigger satiety. Yes, bacon is protein-packed but it also comes with a lot of fat. “The quality of calories counts,” warns Vicki Shanta Retelny, a dietician and author of “Total Body Diet for Dummies.”Aim for a mix of protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats to fuel your day.
EAT AN HOUR AFTER A WORKOUT
If you want maximum results from your sweat session, opt for a protein-based snack after a workout. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found consuming 25 grams of protein 60 minutes after a workout helps refuel depleted muscles.
EAT A BIG LUNCH
Forget smaller, lunch-sized portion and tuck into a larger midday meal.
A study published in The International Journal of Obesity studied 420 overweight and obese adults and found those who ate their major meal after 3 p.m. — lunch for this Spanish cohort — lost less weight than those who ate earlier in the day despite similar calorie consumption and activity levels. Scheer, who co-authored the paper with professors Marta Garaulet, believes diet-induced thermogenesis, the increased energy expenditure after food intake, could be the reason for the results.
The circadian system impacts glucose tolerance, impairing your ability to lower blood sugar after an evening meal and causing your body to burn fewer calories after an evening meal than it does after an identical earlier meal, according to Scheer.
EAT RIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT
Struggling to sleep? Your dinner menu could be to blame.
In one study, eating a high-fiber, higher protein dinner (30% of total calories from fiber and 17% of total calories from protein) and less saturated fat helped adults fall asleep faster than those who ate meals that were lower in fiber and higher in saturated fat and sugar. The researchers found eating a high-fiber, higher protein meal was also associated with more time in slow wave, deep sleep, which is essential for memory consolidation and immune function. Eating more saturated fat, in contrast, led to less restful sleep and more nighttime arousals.
SKIP BEDTIME SNACKS
“Due to our circadian rhythms, our metabolism slows down at night gearing up for sleep so it’s best not to eat a large meal right before bed,” Retelny explains.
Give your body at least two hours before bed to digest a meal. If you’re famished, Retelny notes, “A light snack before bed is OK.” Opt for a snack with a balance of nutrients such as cottage cheese with apple slices; a handful of nuts with a small banana or a large rice cake with peanut butter.