When taking a dietary history, I ask the same thing to all my patients:
“I am interested in learning about what you eat and drink in the course of the day. Could you please take me through a typical day, starting first thing in the morning and going into the night?”
One of the biggest revelations to this exercise relates to meal timing as healthy eating is not just about what you eat; it’s also about the pattern of your eating and when you eat.
Think about your own meal and snack schedule. Is there a predictable routine? Or does it vary widely day to day according to your work and family schedules? Do you end up skipping meals because you’re too busy to eat?
Having a regular meal schedule is important to one’s health. Individuals who have a structured and organized meal schedule enjoy health payoffs, including lower caloric intake and even improved insulin sensitivity and cholesterol levels.
If your goal is to use meal timing to your advantage, here are some tips to guide you:
1 – Identify Your Own Meal and Snack Rhythm
Take notice of the timing of your meals and snacks. This is best accomplished by keeping a diet diary for a few days.
Most people fall somewhere within the two extremes: either your meals and snacks occur at regular planned intervals or you have an erratic meal schedule.
Once you know your typical routine, you can start making changes to improve it.
2 – Use Meal Timing to Your Advantage by Planning Your Daily Meals and Snacks
No one meal rhythm is right for everyone.
Though many people who are successful at weight loss consume a daily breakfast meal, it’s okay to skip that meal if you’re not hungry in the morning and don’t find yourself grazing later in the day due to excessive hunger.
A healthy lunch meal gives both your mind and body a midday energy boost. Having lunch also ensures you won’t be starving for dinner, a time when many people tend to overeat and have less control.
A well-planed and balanced dinner meal helps you unwind after an active day and provides needed nutrition.
Planned snacks can also be a part of a healthy lifestyle weight management program. Whether your planned snack is in the late afternoon or after dinner, enjoying a 100-200 calorie snack can be quite satisfying.
To better manage weight and boost healthier eating habits, remember these 3 meal timing messages:
- Going long periods without eating can set you up to overeat later in the day and make less healthful food choices
- Eating close to bedtime can worsen heartburn and disturb sleep
- Timing your planned snacks can help you approach meal time less ravenous
3 – Can Time Restricted Eating or Intermittent Fasting be Helpful?
Intermittent fasting (IF) focuses on the time window of eating and less on counting calories.
The three most widely used regimens are:
-5:2 intermittent fasting (fasting or consuming 900–1,000 calories for 2 days each week)
-daily time-restricted eating (fasting for 16–18 hours a day)
Studies have shown that intermittent fasting has beneficial effects on metabolic health and comparable effects to daily caloric restriction for weight loss.
You may consider trying one of the IF regimens if you want to put fixed boundaries around your eating times such as reducing late-night snacking or scheduling predetermined fasting or low-calorie intake days.
However, keep in mind that the fixed nature of IF may impact your social interactions or family meals and may make this regimen harder to sustain.
Know that even before the concept of IF became popular, many people have had a cutoff time for their evening snacking to better control calories.
‘Closing’ your kitchen at 7 or 8 PM, for example, can help lessen nighttime nibbling, without formally adopting an IF regimen. You can also tame unplanned after-dinner snacking with this one simple strategy.
Robert Kushner, MD