When should we eat? Does it matter?

As an RD who works in the field of eating disorders, my patients often ask these questions:

  • Does it matter how often I eat?

  • Does it matter what time I eat my meals and snacks?

In addition they come to our offices with many viewpoints, some misinformation and a lot of confusion. They hear things like:

  • Snacking during the day is bad

  • Eating at night will cause weight gain

  • Eating 4-6 smaller meals is better than 3 square meals

The answer to the “does it matter” question is somewhat complicated. It does matter and it doesn’t matter. HUH? At Integrated Eating, we spend a lot of time discussing the importance of eating meals in a structured and timely way. Here’s why!

Our body clock:

Have you ever heard the term circadian rhythm? This is our physiological system that coordinates sleep and wake cycles with hormones and metabolic processes. They are all connected and influence each other. Many metabolic processes in the body such as appetite, digestion and metabolism of fat and cholesterol follow patterns every 24 hours. According to an emerging field called chrononutrition, researchers are exploring and finding the crucial link between metabolism and circadian rhythm. When meals and snacks are timed in a certain way throughout the day, we have better hormone and blood sugar regulation, our cholesterol levels are in better balanced and sleep patterns more normalized. One study found that eating inconsistently may negatively impact our internal clock which can lead to various health risks (1).

The American Way:

Another interesting phenomena I run into in a nutrition recovery setting (and is in many was the American way of eating) is this type of pattern: eating a light breakfast, or skipping the meal altogether and ending the day with a larger meal in the evening. At the same time, many are fearful that eating at night will cause weight gain.

Let’s clarify these myths and set the story straight.

Eating in a top-light, bottom-heavy caloric pattern can lead to unwanted energy crashes and increased hunger/ cravings. Research shows that eating a larger meal at breakfast can have positive health outcomes. One study found that people who ate larger breakfasts and more moderate sized dinners maintained better insulin levels during the day (2). Another study found that eating a bigger breakfast led to better sleeping patterns (3). The main point here is eating balanced meals and snacks throughout the day will allow bodies to work with, not against, circadian rhythm.

But what about eating too late in the evening? Clients have referred to research suggesting that calories eaten at night will be stored as fat. Is this true? Not really. Again, while it needs to be restated that skimping or skipping meals and snacks throughout the day can lead to a slower metabolic body processes, eating at night is not the culprit. The study these folks are referring to was done with individuals working night shifts. While this study did conclude that going against our body clocks does not boast great result it does not suggest eating dinner past a certain hour will cause a person to gain weight. (4)

Does it matter how many meals you eat per day?

Sometimes people question how many meals and snacks are necessary to build a nutritious well balanced diet. Some wonder if several meals and snacks are better than 3 square meals. Confused and conflicted, many of our clients look to the internet for these answers. We will break it down for you.

One study concludes that eating 3 meals has the same effect on total calories burned as eating 5 or 6 smaller meals. The research posits however that eating smaller meals might have some positive effects on preventing excess hunger (5). Another study shows eating more frequent balanced meals and snacks correlates with lower risk for obesity. (6)

The bottom line:

While overall evidence points to positive health outcomes for those who eat at consistent times throughout the day, we know it is unrealistic to do all of the time. We live busy lives. However, building structure and some type of meal planning is an integral step for all people who are recovering from eating disorders. I counsel my clients and remind them that:

  • Adhering to simple rules like eating within the first hour of waking and eating every three to four hours after will help with structure.

  • Setting appointment times will remind them to eat even if it is only 15 minutes! This may mean breakfast on the go or eating lunch while attending a work meeting.

  • Eating balanced meals and snacks maintain blood sugar balance and regulates hormones that are crucial for proper functioning hunger and satiety cues.

  • Having an emergency snack on hand is also a strategy to ensure they will use circadian rhythm to their metabolic benefit.

  • Consuming adequate calories in the first part of the day decreases the chances of physiologic cravings in the late afternoon and evening.

  • Eating a proper dinner at night provides our bodies with essential nutrients we need for bedtime when we repair and restore down to a cellular level. It does not promote weight gain!

While the answer remains complex to the question “does it matter” in regards to when to eat, one thing that clearly matters is your recovery. Working closely with your dietitian to clarify the details of when, what and how much to eat based on your recovery goals and your circadian rhythm is what structured eating is all about. Visit our website (www.integratedeating.com) to learn more about how the Integrated Eating model can support your recovery.

  1. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (2016). Conference on ‘Roles of sleep and circadian rhythms in the origin and nutritional management of obesity and metabolic disease’ Symposium 3: Importance of meal timing Meal irregularity and cardiometabolic consequences: results from observational and intervention studies. Gerda K. Pot, 2, Suzana Almoosawi and Alison M. Stephen.

  2. High Caloric intake at breakfast vs. dinner differentially influences weight loss of overweight and obese women. Daniela Jakubowicz, Maayan Barnea, Julio Wainstein, Oren Froy

  3. Physiology & Behavior. V olume 192, 1 August 2018, Pages 167-172. Daily pattern of energy distribution and weight loss. Author links open overlay panel Hollie A.RaynorFanLiChelsiCardoso

  4. Relationship of Night and Shift Work With Weight Change and ... : Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://journals.lww.com/joem/Abstract/2015/04000/Relationship of Night and Shift Work With Weight.21.aspx

  5. Br J Nutr. 1997 Apr;77 Suppl 1:S57-70. Meal frequency and energy balance. Bellisle,McDevittR,P renticeAM.

  6. Yunsheng Ma, Elizabeth R. Bertone, Edward J. Stanek, George W. Reed, James R. Hebert, Nancy L. Cohen, Philip A. Merriam, Ira S. Ockene, Association between Eating Patterns and Obesity in a Free-living US Adult Population, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 158, Issue 1, 1 July 2003, Pages 85–92, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwg117