Trying to lose weight? When you eat matters.

clock next to plate and utensils

By Dr. Mary James, ND

If your latest diet only focuses on what and how much you eat, you’re missing out on another important weight loss strategy — when you eat.

We’ve known for a long time that our bodily functions change during the course of the day and overnight. Which is why it makes so much sense to change your eating habits to suit your body’s needs for weight loss. And just as we have differences in our genetic makeup, gut flora, metabolic rate and more, there’s no one time to eat that is best for everyone.

What I recommend is that you try a given eating pattern for a while — follow one pattern for maybe four to six weeks — and if the scale doesn’t budge or you feel worse in some way, it’s probably not right for you. The tips below will give you some good options to try.

Should you eat breakfast?

Several studies have shown that the effect of short-changing breakfast reverberates throughout the day for almost everyone. What that means for most breakfast-skippers or coffee-for-breakfast caffeine addicts is that you have to eat actual food.

When you skip breakfast, your mind generally doesn’t work as well. You’re also more likely to have greater swings of both mood and blood sugar if you start the day by fasting.

If your breakfast is composed entirely of coffee, it also makes you more stressed. Caffeine consumed during morning hours increases your body’s normal morning output of cortisol, your stress hormone. Cortisol normally peaks in the morning hours and is key to waking up and getting out of bed, but too much of the hormone increases your stress level and is hard on your body.

What this means for weight loss is that without a well-balanced breakfast, neither your blood sugar nor your cognitive function are primed to make good food choices. If your rapidly dipping blood sugar cries out for cookies mid-morning, your fasting-fogged and stressed-out mind is going to go for the cookies.

To some degree, when you eat and what you eat are inextricably intertwined. For example, while it’s generally advisable to eat breakfast, eating the standard American breakfast high in carbs can result in brain fog, energy crashes, and weight gain rather than loss.

What time should you stop eating?

If skipping breakfast is bad for almost everyone, having a late dinner (especially a large one, which is all too common) is probably worse. Research shows that eating more than 10 hours after you start your day can throw off your circadian rhythms. Because your body is fooled into thinking it should still be awake, your sleep cycle is disrupted (which in itself can promote weight gain).

Studies have found that eating a late dinner or snacking at night is associated with higher body fat. If you’re trying to lose weight, eating later in the evening or at night may be sabotaging your best efforts. On the other hand, if you’re prone to hypoglycemia (drops in blood sugar), you might achieve a higher-quality sleep by eating a very small protein snack close to bedtime. Experiment, since everyone is unique!

woman looking in the refrigerator for a nighttime snack.

When is the best time to eat?

Again, although breakfast and the 10-hour window benefit most people, there is no one-size-fits-all eating pattern that works for everyone. Plenty of research has been done that shows different eating patterns “work” for weight loss for different people:

  • “Breakfast king, lunch queen, dinner peasants”: In other words, eat your heaviest meal early, moderate your food intake at midday, and eat a light supper to keep blood sugar and energy levels stable. Where many people run into trouble with this is if they exercise after work — they may find themselves running short on energy if they haven’t had enough lunch, or unable to limit their dinner after a strenuous workout.

    Exercising hard can deplete your liver glycogen stores enough that a small meal isn’t going to be satisfying, which encourages late-night snacking. So this method may only work well for you if you can exercise earlier in the day.

  • Intermittent fasting: This involves taking a break from eating. The break can be a long one (24 or 36 hours) several times a month, or a shorter one (16 hours) most days a week. Studies have found it’s effective for producing short-term weight loss, even in people who are obese. Better still, it can also positively affect glucose tolerance, serum cholesterol and triglyceride levels and blood pressure. I’ve written about shorter ways to add intermittent fasting for weight loss into your routine.

    This may sound confusing — recommending breakfast and then suggesting intermittent fasting as an option. Although intermittent fasting can provide a host of health benefits including weight loss, not everyone can tolerate it. But it’s also possible for many people to adapt to some form of intermittent fasting, especially if they ease into it gradually.

  • Multiple small meals at more frequent intervals throughout the day: This helps you not to get too hungry and can help you limit the overall amount of food you take in. But it also starts a habit of “grazing” that can have the opposite effect — since you’re never hungry, the hormones affecting metabolism and weight loss can be thrown off balance.

    Multiple meals may work best if you can organize yourself to stop for a snack or “mini-meal” at regular intervals — keeping the food away from your workspace so you’re not tempted to eat continually or when under stress. This also encourages you to take routine breaks, which is good for stress management too.

If none of these pattern-shifts seems to work, your body may actually be blocking weight loss due to a hormonal imbalance. If that’s true, give your body the support it needs to restore hormonal balance. You’ll be surprised at how your body becomes ready to lose weight.

Is a hormonal, thyroid or adrenal imbalance causing your weight gain? Find out now with our simple Symptom Checker.
References

Gotthardt JD, Verpeut JL, Yeomans BL, et al. Intermittent Fasting Promotes Fat Loss With Lean Mass Retention, Increased Hypothalamic Norepinephrine Content, and Increased Neuropeptide Y Gene Expression in Diet-Induced Obese Male Mice. Endocrinology. 2016 Feb;157(2):679-91. doi: 10.1210/en.2015-1622. Epub 2015 Dec 14.

Longo, VD, Panda, S. Fasting, circadian rhythms, and time restricted feeding in healthy lifespan. Cell Metab. 2016 Jun 14; 23(6): 1048–1059.

Manoogian, ENC, Panda, S. Circadian rhythms, time-restricted feeding, and healthy aging. Ageing Res Rev. 2017 Oct;39:59-67. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2016.12.006. Epub 2016 Dec 23.

Mattson, MP, Longo, VD, Harvie, M. Impact of intermittent fasting on health and disease processes. Ageing Res Rev. 2017 Oct;39:46-58.

McHill AW, Phillips AJ, Czeisler CA, et al. Later circadian timing of food intake is associated with increased body fat. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017 Nov;106(5):1213-1219. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.117.161588. Epub 2017 Sep 6.

Spence, C. Breakfast: The most important meal of the day? Int J Gastronomy Food Sci. 2017;8:1-6.