Does meal timing matter?

Frequency and time of day may have implications for health

If you typically skip breakfast and eat your largest meal at dinner, you might want to rethink your eating pattern. According to researchers from Loma Linda University, eating more in the morning and less in the evening could help prevent the pounds from creeping on.

The study, published earlier this summer, was conducted among 50,066 healthy adults and found that, compared to breakfast skippers, those who ate the morning meal were more likely to experience a reduction in their body mass index (BMI) over the seven year follow up period. People who ate their largest meal at breakfast – versus lunch or dinner – were also more likely to have a lower BMI.

Frequency of eating seemed to influence body mass index, too. Eating more than three meals a day (snacking), compared to three square meals, was associated with an increase in BMI year over year.

Interesting, but these findings are limited. The study was observational in nature; it wasn’t a randomized controlled trial designed to prove cause and effect.  And the results may not apply to everyone. The participants were Seventh-Day Adventists who have lower health risks than other North Americans. They don’t smoke and many are vegetarian and abstain from alcohol.

Even so, the notion that when you eat your calories plays a role in weight control is gaining ground.

Forgoing breakfast tied to risk factors for heart disease, diabetes

Earlier this year the American Heart Association published a scientific statement emphasizing the role of breakfast in guarding against obesity and cardiovascular disease risk factors.

The organization stated that the link between eating breakfast and a lower risk of weight gain and obesity is supported by results from several large observational studies.

Breakfast skippers have also been found to have elevated blood pressure, higher LDL cholesterol and fasting blood glucose levels, and a greater risk of Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. What’s more, these risks appear to be independent of the overall diet quality of breakfast eaters versus skippers.

If you routinely skip breakfast, there are other reasons why you might consider adding it to your menu.

“Research suggests that you’ll build more muscle if you spread your protein intake evenly over three meals rather than skewing your intake towards the evening meal,” says Leslie Beck, Director, Food and Nutrition at Medcan. “And, if you tend to overeat at lunch, eating breakfast can help keep your appetite in check until lunchtime”.

Late night eating may have negative health effects

Beck says findings from observational studies suggest that late night eating (defined as eating dinner two hours before bedtime) may increase the risk of obesity, metabolic syndrome and inflammation.  Very few randomized controlled trials, however, have focused on meal timing and risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  Among those that have been conducted, most have been single-day studies involving a small number of participants.

Findings from these studies do suggest, though, that consuming a larger proportion of your daily calories late in the day may impair how the body handles blood glucose.

Delaying meal times affects the body’s circadian rhythm

According to Beck, the theory is that weight control is linked to the body’s circadian rhythm, the 24-hour cycle that regulates calorie-burning, hunger hormones, digestion, metabolism of fat and glucose and blood pressure.

Human beings are not genetically engineered to eat all day long.  Our bodies are programmed to burn fat at certain times of the day and store it at others. Disturbing these biological clocks by eating late at night, for example, can disturb metabolic function and influence whether incoming calories are burned or tucked away as fat.

“Studies suggest that post-meal calorie burning is higher after a morning meal than after dinner. As well, we tend to be less sensitive to the effects of insulin after an evening meal than after breakfast. That may help explain why eating evening or late night eating has been associated with weight gain and obesity,” says Beck.

There’s no one-size fits all eating schedule

“Many of us have been brought up on the idea that the largest meal of the day is the evening meal,” says Beck. “Shifting some of your calories from dinner to breakfast and/or lunch, or eating earlier in the day, requires a change in mindset and scheduling, which isn’t doable for everyone.”

Beck recommends meeting with a registered dietitian or weight management specialist to help establish a meal pattern that’s individualized to your lifestyle and your health needs.

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