How Meal Timing May Effect Weight and Health

Fitness, health, and weight loss goals are in the spotlight during the month of January, and many people recommit to moving more, eating a healthy diet, and taking time for self-care and stress management.  Eating a Mediterranean-style diet has been established as one of the top lifestyle habits among the world’s longest-lived populations – but meal timing may also make a significant difference in how well food is metabolized. 

According to a recent Washington Post Eating Lab report, the timing of meals can have a significant impact on weight, appetite and the risk for chronic diseases.  Although many people have had success with intermittent fasting, studies have found that older adults who skip breakfast are more prone to losing muscle mass at a faster rate.  Adults begin to lose muscle mass starting in their 30 and 40s and older adults must work to maintain muscle strength and mass to enjoy an independent and active lifestyle. 

By consuming most of their calories earlier in the day with a hearty breakfast, a moderate-sized lunch and a small dinner, people can better align their eating habits with their circadian rhythm which influences hormonal fluctuation, body temperature and sleep cycle.  Our bodies are designed to metabolize food earlier in the day when we are most active, and as the daylight fades, our body’s ability to digest and metabolize food becomes less efficient.  

Studies have shown that the same meal, eaten in the morning, has a very different metabolic effect when consumed at night.   By making a nutritious hearty breakfast, eating a modest lunch and a light dinner, and avoiding late-night eating, researchers have found that participants lost more weight and improved their blood sugar and cholesterol levels.  Eating later was found to spike ghrelin levels – a hormone that increases appetite and suppresses leptin – a hormone that helps us feel full.   Eating later also caused study participants to burn less fat and calories, and triggered fat cells to store more fat. 

The Takeaway

Try not to skip breakfast.  Even if you are not very hungry – try to eat something healthy or drink a nutritious smoothie.  If you simply can’t eat first thing in the morning, try to consume a large, nutritious lunch with plenty of lean protein, fresh vegetables and whole grains.  If you indulge in a simple carb like bread or pastries, it’s best to do so in the early part of the day. 

Try to eat dinner earlier in the evening.  If you normally eat at 6:30 or 7 p.m., try eating an hour earlier and avoid any late-night snacking.  Ideally, you should finish dinner at least two to three hours before going to bed.  This habit may also help those who suffer from heartburn or indigestion.  Dinner should also be the smallest meal of the day. 

Even if you can’t follow an early-eating schedule every day, aim for early meal timing on at least five days of the week.   Stopping eating three or four hours before going to sleep has been found to have the most significant fat-burning benefits as the body uses fat to power organ function while we sleep.