Timing of Meals and Weight Loss


Anahad O’Connor tackles health myths.

THE FACTS

In The New England Journal of Medicine last week, a prominent researcher noted that much of the conventional wisdom about weight loss has little basis in science. But his article did not address one oft-asked question: Is your waistline affected by when you eat, or is a calorie always just a calorie whenever you eat it?

To seasoned dieters, the claim that eating late can spell trouble is nothing new. But the idea has lacked evidence from credible human studies. Most of the research to date has shown that eating late is linked to weight gain, but late eaters also tend to consume more calories over all.

In a new study, published in The International Journal of Obesity, researchers at Harvard and elsewhere followed 420 overweight men and women in Spain in a 20-week weight loss program.

The subjects were split into two groups. Each followed a similar diet, got equivalent amounts of sleep, and had similar caloric intakes and expenditures. They also showed no differences in two hormones that play a key role in appetite, leptin and ghrelin.

But there was a critical difference in the timing of their main meal of the day, which in this case, because of the Mediterranean setting, was lunch. In both groups, the meal comprised about 40 percent of their daily calories. But one group consistently ate it before 3 p.m. daily, while the other did so after 3 p.m.

By the end of the study, despite similar caloric intakes, the late eaters had lost significantly less weight. They also showed lower insulin sensitivity, which increases the risk of diabetes.

Weight loss strategies, the authors wrote, should focus not just on calories and nutrients, “but also the timing of food.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

The timing of your meals may not be everything when it comes to weight loss, but it does appear to play a role.

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