As the rates of overweight and obesity continue to climb among Americans, scientists are continuing to identify nutritional strategies to help better regulate appetite and limit food intake. Let’s talk about one of these nutritional strategies – meal timing.
The recommendation for people who are trying to achieve or maintain a healthy body to eat small, more frequent meals is not new. This recommendation is based on research that shows people with healthier body types (lesser body fat and fewer risk factors for cardiovascular disease) eat more often and studies which assigned people to eat more frequently had better weight loss due to lower rates of hunger, higher rates of fullness and higher levels of energy metabolism throughout the day.
However, when given the license to eat more frequently, one must take care in knowing the calorie contribution of all those small meals.
Remember when snacking or grazing, people tend to over indulge on foods that are higher in calories. Over the course of a day those grazing calories begin to add up and any potential beneficial effect for achieving your weight loss goals can be quickly unraveled.
That’s the skinny on meal frequency or how often to eat, so what about meal timing with regard to when to eat?
An exciting and emerging area of study in weight management is the idea of time-restricted feeding. This, as the name suggests, refers to the restriction of eating within a certain period of time. For example, if you normally eat your first meal of the day at 7 a.m. and your last meal at 8 p.m., then your eating window is 13 hours. If you were to adopt a time-restricted approach, you would reduce the window of eating from 13 hours to say less than 8 hours or fewer.
In several sophisticated studies in mice, providing a diet which is high in fat for 8-9 hours per day compared to ad libitum (food was available for 24 hours and they ate as they wished) improved many metabolic factors such as insulin and cholesterol levels.
Studies have now also been published in humans. For example, one study showed that eating lunch later in the day (i.e. after 3 p.m.) was predictive of poorer weight loss and in another study, people who were assigned to eat more of their daily calories at breakfast, lost more weight than people who were assigned to eat more of their daily calories at dinner.
However, it appears that it is not necessarily eating only in the morning or in the evening that counts, but restricting the window of time over which we eat.
There are many groups in the U.S. that have research programs dedicated to meal timing and understanding how changes in hormone levels which fluctuate throughout the day and are dependent on whether we are awake or asleep, can impact how we metabolize food, and could tip the scales on energy balance and influence weight management.
So, while the jury is still out on time-restricted feeding, you can follow the recommendation of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In their position statement on weight management, the Academy suggests spreading your total calorie intake for a day into 4-5 meals, including breakfast. The Academy also indicates that it may be preferable for health to consume a majority of the energy throughout the day, with fewer calories left for eating at night.
Therefore to give your weight management program a boost consider sprucing up your meal plan to include more frequent meals and all calories eaten before 7 p.m., or two – three hours before bedtime.
Remember, to prevent over-eating, you must plan, plan, plan! As I always say, rely on as many portion controlled foods as you can. Portion controlled foods take the guess work out of portion estimation and are an easy to way to know what you are eating!