By now, we're probably all aware what we eat plays a key role in achieving optimal health and maintaining a stable weight. But did you know when we eat may play an equally important role in our health?
Determining your ideal eating schedule is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle. However, as a holistic nutritionist, I know many people suffer from information overload about diet trends and studies, guaranteed to leave even the most conscientious of us baffled.
Maybe you keep hearing you should eat breakfast, but you're never hungry first thing in the morning. Are you supposed to eat three meals a day, or five small ones? Is it really that bad to snack late at night? How do we sort through the conflicting opinions?
Here's the bottom line: To determine a healthy eating schedule that's right for you, you'll have to combine hard science with the softer science of paying attention to your own rhythms and needs.
No one-size-fits-all formula suits everyone. Through a period of trial and error - trying out what's been shown to work well, and then checking in with your body, energy level and emotions to see if that works for you - you can identify the eating schedule that suits your needs.
Say "no" to skipping meals
"There's so much that goes into determining an individual's health," said Matt Reddy, a naturopathic doctor to athletes at Denver Sports Recovery. "Genetics, hormones, environment, quality of food and type of food all play a role. Skipping meals may cause hormonal, genetic and neurological responses that lead to increased weight."
Skipping meals triggers our brains to believe food may be scarce. From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies are genetically predisposed to last through famine by storing food as fat when supplies are hard to find. Today, skipping meals may flip that "famine" switch, despite the fact a sandwich is only a few steps away.
"When you skip a meal, a few things can happen," Reddy said. "You may turn on genes that tell you to store food, leading to weight gain. Blood sugar drops when we skip meals, which can cause poor concentration, irritability and sugar or caffeine cravings. Thyroid hormones may decrease in order to conserve energy, which can lead to a slowed metabolism."
In short, an irregular eating schedule can throw our metabolism and blood sugar out of whack.
A 2007 study by the National Institute on Aging backs this up: Healthy male and female subjects who skipped most of their meals and then consumed their entire day's calories in the evening had elevated fasting glucose levels and delayed insulin response - precursors to diabetes.
You may have heard the old adage "eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper." A 2013 study from Tel Aviv bears this out. A group of 93 overweight or obese women with metabolic syndrome were randomly assigned to one of two groups that consumed the same number of calories per day. The women who ate most of their calories at breakfast lost more weight and achieved more stable hormone levels than the group that consumed most of their calories at dinner.
"In many people, skipping any meal can lead to excess hunger and overeating at the next meal. I believe breakfast sets the tone for the day," said Kelly Morrow, a registered dietitian and professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University. "If your breakfast is full of sugar, it can lead to a blood sugar roller coaster that makes it hard to accurately tune into true hunger and satiety cues. If your breakfast is balanced and contains protein and complex carbohydrates, it can keep the blood sugar balanced and help control cravings and excess hunger."