As with many topics in the wellness world, conflicting advice is aplenty.
You may have heard one or more of these recommendations surrounding when to eat:
"Breakfast is the best meal of the day and helps boost your metabolism!"
"Loading up on calories in the evening is now the best method!"
"Never eat past 6 p.m.! Your body will store it directly as fat!"
The list could go on. It’s enough to drive the average Joe or Jane insane.
Why is advice so conflicting? As with many nutrition topics research can be mixed, or new research emerges that confounds what we thought we knew. As frustrating as it may be for some, it is part of the normal scientific process. Nutritional science can be tricky, plus, every body is different. The human body is a biological system, and as much as we know generally what goes on at the cellular level, it’s difficult to account for individual uniqueness and control for all factors when developing research studies.
For people who struggle with their relationship with food, they tend to get caught up in food recommendations and practices in their search for answers. In seeking advice from online articles or experts, it's easy to get duped into believing evidence based off a single study, an article summarizing a longer, more complicated study, or myths that refuse to die. It's time to clear this one oft misinterpreted dieting question up once and for all.
What is nutrient timing or calorie distribution? Nutrient timing is the method of eating certain meals and/or macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) at specific times of the day, sometimes in specific amounts, in order maximize results, health and/or performance.
So, what’s the best approach to take?
While it may be difficult to swallow, the truth is there is no one definitive "best" way to distribute calories throughout the day. Each and every individual is unique, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. The best approach is one that works best for you long term and is supportive of your ultimate goals.
While advice that promises the best results for all types of people might sound compelling, anyone that markets a product, approach or philosophy as the one ultimate way to reach weight loss or maintenance for all seven billion people on the planet should be met with a skeptical eye. Remember that nothing worth having comes easy, and sometimes it takes a little trial and error to figure out the best method for your unique body and lifestyle.
To help you understand which approach might best fit your lifestyle, it's time to dive a little bit deeper into some different approaches to nutrient timing and calorie distribution.
Breakfast: The "Best Meal of the Day"?There are many studies out there (see here, here and here) and advocates that promote breakfast as "the best meal of the day," calling it essential for maintaining a healthy weight. However, observational research has to be taken with a grain of salt because there are many factors that can influence the results of the study, and more often than not correlation does not equal causation.
Since breakfast has been advocated as the healthiest meal of the day for decades, doesn’t it also seem likely that the people with healthier habits overall would be more prone to be the ones consuming breakfast?
Don’t just take my word for it, though—there are actually more and more studies emerging that show exactly what is mentioned above which is that eating breakfast may not be the be all end all solution that we once thought.
Another important element to consider is that a study may show that eating a certain amount at a certain time of day may be beneficial, but there could be other factors influencing the final results.
For example, one study with 193 obese participants showed that a high protein and carbohydrate meal at breakfast time can help reduce cravings and increase satiety throughout the day when compared to a breakfast low in carbohydrates. The group that had the high carbohydrate and protein breakfast actually continued to lose an average of approximately seven kilograms during the follow-up period of the study, while the low carbohydrate breakfast group went on to regain an average of approximately 11 kilograms during the same period. Both groups had similar weight loss during the first phase of the study.
Throughout the course of the study, each group had consumed the same amount of total calories throughout the day. The high carbohydrate and protein breakfast group had a larger breakfast at 600 calories that included a dessert, whereas the low carbohydrate breakfast had a 300-calorie breakfast. Then, dinners for each group were reversed (300 versus 600) each day.
Still with me? The takeaway here is that both groups consumed the same calories: one group had a larger breakfast with higher carbs and protein. Both groups lost similar weight on average in the treatment phase, but the low carbohydrate breakfast group ended up regaining weight over the follow-up period whereas the high carbohydrate and protein breakfast group ended up losing more weight.
Hold Up! What Does This All Mean?Many people would look at the results and say eating more calories at breakfast helped promote weight-loss long term, but there are still a couple of different things to consider here.
Restrictive dieting tends to affect the hormones that regulate hunger, causing hunger cues to be elevated, making you feel like you might be hungry all the time and therefore making it easier to overeat and regain weight.
The group that had the higher calorie, higher protein and carbohydrate breakfast with a dessert continued to have reduced cravings throughout the study, and their hormones that influence hunger and fullness were less effected. It's possible that this group likely felt less restricted due their controlled portion of dessert each day, making them more likely to stick to the sustainable changes of the diet.
Remember that both groups lost similar weight during the treatment period while consuming the same calories per day, despite having different distributions of calories throughout the day. It was only after the treatment phase when they were told to continue their diet changes on their own that the groups really differed.
At this point you might be thinking, "So, there is research showing benefits of higher calorie distribution at breakfast, and then there’s the opposite research showing the benefits with larger distribution in the evening. What do I do?"
Who’s right? The breakfast advocates or the dinner advocates? Well, it depends.
Some research has found breakfast to be the best time for big meals; others have found no differences in weight loss between big breakfasts and big dinners; then other research has found significant benefits from eating more at night.
What can we determine from this conflicting medley of findings?
Really, it’s simple: We’re all unique. There’s no one-size-fits all rule. There are many elements that affect overall metabolism, so it's important to find a plan that works best for your body and your lifestyle. With a little trial and error, you can find an eating routine that helps you reach your goals, which you can also sustain for life.
If early morning rising and oats with berries and nut butter gets you through the day feeling awesome, great. If you prefer not to eat until lunchtime without feeling the need to overeat later in the day, give it a try!
Whatever way of eating you choose to take on should include consuming all the nutrients that your body needs to sustain life and maintain energy (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, water, etc.), in a way that makes sense for your goals and lifestyle.
Just like when you exercise, what’s most important is making high-quality choices, consistently, to the best of your abilities, whenever it works for you.