You’ve probably heard the saying “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a queen and dinner like a pauper” or “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” But should your meals really get smaller as the day goes on? Here’s what the research and experts have to say:
A BIG BREAKFAST MAY NOT BE NECESSARY
Proponents of breakfasting like a king say the goal is to match energy intake with expenditure throughout the day, explains sports nutritionist Molly Kimball, RD, nutritionist at the Ochsner Fitness Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. It makes sense, then, to preload calories in the morning to fuel your body and brain for the day’s tasks (and workout) ahead.
“That thought is a bit outdated, and we can’t make the recommendation across the board to eat a bigger meal in the morning and gradually shrink the rest of your intake,” says Kimball, who points to the rise of intermittent fasting. Some people have found they can lose weight by cinching their eating window through intermittent fasting (IF). For instance, they might start eating at 12 p.m. for lunch and then close their eating window at 8 p.m. after dinner. This means they’re skipping breakfast entirely, something that throws the whole “breakfast like a king” idea out the window.
“Research shows that those doing IF see their body fat drop and lean mass increase without harming athletic performance,” says Kimball. (Though one review says it’s no better than other types of diets.) This may be because IF is improving insulin function. If you do IF, she recommends timing your fueling by opening up your eating window after exercise.
WHY A LARGE DINNER ISN’T THE WAY TO GO
Eating a large, fatty meal right before bed “is difficult for your body to digest properly when you’re horizontal,” says Kimball. It can cause acid reflux and, in turn, disturb your sleep. Make sure your last meal is 2–3 hours before bed, advises Kimball. If you need a snack to ward off hunger, stick with something small and easily digestible like half a sliced banana with a little yogurt. However, that’s more for the sake of your sleep — not necessarily weight loss.
FOR WEIGHT LOSS, THE RESEARCH IS MIXED
While some small preliminary research indicates eating more calories earlier in the day taps into our body’s natural circadian rhythms that follow metabolism and enhance weight loss better than bigger dinners, this is far from conclusive. In fact, in a review and meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2017, researchers concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to suggest eating less in the evening can help people lose weight, and more studies were needed.
Currently, a study, called the “Big Breakfast Study” is underway to explore this as a weight-loss strategy.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ultimately, meal timing should be about what works best for you. While some people respond well to a breakfast-skipping, intermittent fasting-type of eating pattern, others find eating frequent, mini-meals throughout the day with adequate protein and low sugar keeps their insulin in check, says Kimball. Or, you may find you’re naturally hungry for a bigger breakfast and smaller dinner. All of those are sound approaches to fueling.
Kimball suggests keeping a log to see how your body responds after certain meals.“Make your eating patterns and timing your own self experiment,” says Kimball.