There’s a lot of noise surrounding the timing of meals throughout the day. Some people stick to three square meals a day – the traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Others prefer smaller, more frequent meals. And still others love the different variations of intermittent fasting, divvying up their days into fasting periods and eating periods. So, what’s the right answer? Is there a “right” way to time meals – and can the timing impact your health or well-being?
According to Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, “Depends on whom you ask. The American Dietetic Association would say no, but if you ask me, I’d definitely say yes!”
Research Suggest Meal Timing Does Make a Difference
The good news: Plenty of scientific research has been done on the topic of meal timing.
“Several recent studies, as well as a classic one from the ’70s, support the idea that mealtimes do matter – a lot,” Bowden explains. “[In 2013] researchers ran a 20-week weight-loss study. All participants followed the same Mediterranean-type diet plan [and] slept for the same number of hours; hunger hormone levels were comparable. Half the folks ate their heartiest meal around 3 pm or earlier, while half ate theirs after 3 pm. Participants who ate later in the day lost 22% less weight than those who ate earlier.”
“This is hardly the first time research has shown an effect of meal timing,” Bowden points out. “A study showed that mice that were limited to an eight-hour feeding period each day were much healthier (and weighed less) than mice that were allowed to eat freely anytime, and this was true regardless of what they actually ate. Half the mice in the study ate high-fat diets while the other half ate low-fat diets, but it didn’t matter; the mice restricted to eight hours a day gained less weight than the mice that ate at any time they pleased.”
“And another animal study allowed mice to eat as much weight-gaining food as they wanted, but one group ate only during the day while the other group ate only at night (when they would normally be sleeping). The day eaters gained about 20% of their initial weight, but the night eaters gained more than twice as much weight (a 48% increase!),” Bowden notes.
Most of the research thus far suggests that what matters most in timing your meals is how late you’re eating, at least when it comes to weight. “Military studies dating back to the ’70s show that men who are given an identical 2,000-calorie meal at different times of the day had their weight significantly impacted,” Bowden says. “Those who ate the heftier meal at breakfast didn’t gain weight, but those who ate the same meal at night did.”
What About Health Concerns Beyond Weight?
In general, sticking to the advice of the above research – eating your meals earlier in the day rather than late in the evening – will work for most people. However, if you have health concerns that reach beyond weight alone, you may want to check in with your doctor or a nutritionist to figure out what works best for your specific needs.
For example, if you have certain health conditions like diabetes, you may need to adjust the frequency of your meals and the size. Or, if you’re someone who enjoys intermittent fasting, you may want to try out different fasting windows and lengths to see what works best for your energy levels, nutrition, and overall health.
Wondering where to start when it comes to timing your meals? These general recommendations are research-backed and suitable for most people:
- Eat earlier in the day as opposed to late at night
- Enjoy your final meal of the day about 12 hours after your first
- Try to avoid eating meals right before heading to bed
What does Bowden recommend? Just keep it simple! “My best advice: Follow the old rule to eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper. The research shows that the time you do eat truly does make a difference.”