Trying to lose weight? When you eat matters.
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
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
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
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
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
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