Meal Frequency and Timing – Does it Matter?
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
In all my years of counseling, I’ve heard pretty much every possible meal pattern from my clients. There are those who nibble nonstop all day long, those who starve all day and stuff at night, and even those who wake up in the middle of a sound sleep and have a snack. So the question comes up all the time; when it comes to weight loss, does it matter how often you eat, or when?
If you were to look at this strictly from a calorie standpoint, the answer would be no. A lot of people think that calories are more likely to be stored if they’re eaten at the end of the day, when the body is slowing down and preparing for sleep. But it doesn’t work that way. Taking in too many calories at any time of the day is going to lead to weight gain. Your body doesn’t know what time it is, and it really doesn’t matter if you eat your extra calories before the sun goes down or after. Either way, your fat cells are more than happy to hang on to those extra calories for you to use later.
One reason people believe that eating at night piles on the pounds, though, is because many night eaters do lose weight when they stop eating so late. But most of them have been doing the majority of their gorging late in the day and well into the evening. So when they stop eating at, say, 7 PM, they cut out hundreds of calories that they ordinarily would have consumed. They’re losing weight not because they stopped eating after a certain time they’re losing weight because they stopped eating, period.
Even if the time of day doesn’t matter that much, that’s not to say that it’s a good idea to starve all day and stuff at night. There’s plenty to be said for eating at regular intervals.
For one thing, when you eat every few hours, your blood sugar levels stay more even. Since blood sugar provides fuel to your brain and muscles, you can feel weak or fuzzy-headed when your blood sugar plummets after a long stretch without food. And once that happens, you’re more likely to eat whatever’s in sight to bring your blood sugar back up, and that can lead to some poor food choices and extra calories.
Meal skippers sometimes think, too, that they’re entitled to more when they finally do sit down to eat, telling themselves that they ‘haven’t eaten all day’. But more often than not, they end up taking in a lot more calories than if they’d eaten smaller, more frequent meals, and so they rarely end up cutting calories over the course of the day.
There’s a practical issue at work, too. When you’re trying to hit all your nutritional targets to get in your protein, your fruits, your veggies, your whole grains and your dairy products, it’s just not practical to try to cram all that into just one or two meals. When you eat regular meals and snacks, you have that many more opportunities to work these healthy foods into your day.