The times that we eat our meals has changed significantly in recent years. Long gone are the days when breakfast is eaten at 7am, lunch by 12pm and dinner by 6pm sharp. Now we’re more likely to fast until lunchtime, graze until dinner and not sit down to enjoy our final meal of the day until 7pm or 8pm.
While this style of eating has evolved with our increasingly busy lifestyles, unfortunately it’s also closely linked to weight gain over time.
If you know that you eat far more at night than you do during the day and your weight has been creeping up, here are the easy ways to take control and time your meals to your advantage.
How the body burns calories
The human body is regulated according to a circadian rhythm — this means that our basic physiological processes, including our hormones, are controlled according to a 24-hour body clock. This means that we are programmed to burn more fuel in the first half of the day, and to store it later.
It also means that the body is programmed to have periods of time without food (overnight) and that there are times the body is in store and repair mode, as opposed to mobilise fuel and burn mode. Nothing we do significantly changes this.
We may work shift work and eat throughout the night, but the body will remain programmed to not be burning as much energy overnight and more likely to store food consumed at this time.
How we eat our food impacts metabolism
This means that when we skip breakfast or replace it with coffee, or do not eat until 9am or 10am, we miss the metabolic benefits that come when we eat early in the day.
Then when we delay lunch until 2pm or 3pm, not only does it mean we are consuming most of our calories during the second half of the day, but it can also result in a delayed hunger, where low blood sugar levels drive appetite throughout the afternoon.
When this is coupled with a large meal at night, extra snacks and alcohol, it’s easy to see how this gradual weight gain cycle evolves.
How can I get my meal timing right?
As a general rule of thumb, the earlier you eat your first meal the better — and make sure it is a meal, a coffee won’t cut it. This will result in you feeling hungrier through the morning, which is a sign your metabolism is working hard to burn the calories you have consumed.
Next, only add a snack if you are really hungry mid-morning but instead enjoy a hearty lunch as early as 11am and definitely before 1pm. You can then add in a filling snack mid-afternoon before aiming to eat your final meal by 8pm at the latest to give the body a minimum of 10-12 hours without food overnight.
Here, you are ultimately shifting your overall calorie intake forward, helping to boost metabolism and reduce the chance you’re storing extra calories later in the day.
What should I do if I always eat dinner late?
If you routinely find that you don’t eat dinner until late in the evening, there are a few options to avoid this weight-gain cycle.
You can start to have a larger meal at lunchtime, followed by a substantial afternoon snack and a light meal such as soup or salad. Or another option is to take your evening meal to work and enjoy at an earlier hour.
If your lifestyle means that larger, heavier meals at night are inevitable, you may benefit from adopting a fasting approach where you don’t eat until lunchtime, followed by an afternoon snack and dinner. Here, it’s still recommended that the dinner be relatively light and small by avoiding especially calorie-dense meals and desserts at night, and then not eating again for 12-16 hours, or until you’re genuinely hungry the next day.
For many years, health professionals have sprouted the idea of ‘calories in, versus calories out’ as being the most important thing for weight control, without specifying whether the type of calories, or the timing of when these calories are consumed is important.
As we learn more and research in the area grows, it’s become more apparent that meal timing and the distribution of our calories matters.
The good thing about this is that you may not need to ‘diet’ at all, rather simply shift your eating times to ensure you’re getting the most from your metabolism. And the best sign you’re on the right track is waking up hungry, and then noticing your hunger throughout the day. This is the clearest indication that your body is burning food throughout the day, so you are not left ravenous and craving treats and snacks at night.
Author Susie Burrell is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Me, and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.