Weight Loss – Is Timing Really Everything?
What sort of meal pattern is the most effective for weight loss?
*for most healthy people who need to lose weight; not accounting for patterns of exercise *
Tomorrow, the popular nutrition press might choose to have you believe that 6 meals per day is the only way to lose weight, then the next day it’s 3 with 2 small snacks, then no snacks, then 2 meals, then 1, then fasting… and repeat.
The truth is, that there is a lot of good quality scientific trials with differing results so we don’t know for certain. That said, there are some things that have been proven to be less effective than others.
There is strong evidence that shows that eating 6 meals per day does not produce more weight loss than eating three meals per day. Another research trial in people with diabetes showed that weight loss was much more effective if they ate 2 meals per day (breakfast and lunch) rather than 6 small meals, even though the number of calories remained the same. So the 6 small meal thing is just a myth, which is a relief to everyone without a private chef and all the time in the world to eat 6 times per day.
Also, it has been shown that only eating 1 meal per day verses 3, does make you lose more weight even if the calories stay the same, but that it much worse for your health and makes people miserable, so we can rule that out too (thank goodness!).
So, 2-3 meals per day is fine but when is it best to eat our main meal?
When I was asked to research this, I have to admit to being biased towards an ‘extended fast’ type meal pattern, whereby the first meal of the day is lunch, so the period from the evening meal to lunch the next day is a fasting period. This fits in with the thought that we are very sedentary now and I don’t actually need any additional energy, than that which I have stored in my muscles and in my liver to get me showered, dressed, in my car and to the office.
Although this goes against healthy eating guidelines there is evidence that shows that eating breakfast probably doesn’t make as much difference as we thought. There was a big study last year of 283 obese people who were trying to lose weight. The researchers in this study compared people who ate breakfast and people who didn’t and found that it didn’t make any difference to the amount of weight they lost over 16 weeks.
Another study has shown that in a large group of Spanish people, those who ate their lunch later (14:00-15:00) lost a lot more weight than those who ate their lunch earlier in the day (11-12:00) even though they all ate the same number of calories overall and still had a big meal in the evening. These people were noted to eat only a very small breakfast so their fast was also continued to a certain extent.
There have also been studies of our body clock or circadian rhythm which show that as humans we tend to have a peak in our hunger levels at 8pm and a low at 8am so perhaps this eating later is what we are supposed to do. That said, we know that the times when our ‘hunger hormones’ peak, alters if we change our eating pattern. For example, women observing the religious fast Ramadan have been shown to get hungry later and later in the day as the fast progresses. So actually our body clock is conditioned to our normal eating times.
So, eating more later in the day and less in the morning is the right way to loose weight right? Maybe not…
On further literature reviewing I read a very convincing and robust study of 93 people on a calorie controlled diet. Half ate 700 calories for breakfast, 400 for lunch and 200 in the evening and the other half did the opposite. They found that those eating more in the morning and less in the evening lost 11.22lb more over 12 weeks! Despite eating the same number of calories overall!!
So, the old adage of; breakfast of a king, lunch of a prince, supper of a pauper probably still carries some weight (excuse the pun).
All that said, what we know about people who successfully lose weight and keep it off, have a regular meal rhythm and so are less likely to binge, eat less snacks, sit down and take their time over food and importantly exercise a flexible control, rather than a rigid control, over their eating. This means that while they stick to their healthy eating behaviours most of the time, they have the flexibility to allow themselves to enjoy eating out and celebrations without becoming stressed.
The metabolic benefits of differing meal patterns are still being investigated and the impact carbohydrate consumption on glucose and insulin levels and how this effects appetite is a story for another day.
The bottom line is that weight loss is very individual and the evidence is still divided on what pattern of eating is the most effective in achieving weight loss. If changing to a big breakfast and small evening meal doesn’t fit in with your lifestyle and would make dieting hard work, don’t do it! You won’t be able to stick to it and it will probably interfere with your family and social life. If however, you are always really hungry in the morning and this is a good time of day for you to make a main meal and it won’t affect your lifestyle, then go for it! You will probably be more successful for it.
If you would like the references for this piece or have any questions, please get in touch through sophiedietitian.com