By now, we’re probably all aware that what we eat plays a key role in achieving optimal health and maintaining a stable weight. But did you know that when we eat may play an equally important role in our health? Determining your ideal eating schedule is a crucial part of a healthy lifestyle. However, as a holistic nutritionist, I know many people suffer from information overload about diet trends and studies, guaranteed to leave even the most conscientious of us baffled. Maybe you keep hearing that you should eat breakfast, but you’re never hungry first thing in the morning. Are you supposed to eat three meals a day, or five small ones? Is it really that bad to snack late at night? How do we sort through the conflicting opinions?
Here’s the bottom line: To determine a healthy eating schedule that’s right for you, you’ll have to combine hard science with the softer science of paying attention to your own rhythms and needs. No one-size-fits-all formula suits everyone. We’re all biochemically unique, which means your dietary needs differ from those of your partner, your neighbor and maybe even your twin sister. Through a period of trial and error—trying out what’s been shown to work well, and then checking in with your body, energy level and even emotions to see if that works for you—you can identify the eating schedule that suits your needs. Here are a few pointers to get you started.
Say No to Skipping Meals
“There’s so much that goes into determining an individual’s health,” says Matt Reddy, a naturopathic doctor to athletes at Denver Sports Recovery. “Genetics, hormones, environment, quality of food and type of food all play a role. Skipping meals may cause hormonal, genetic and neurological responses that lead to increased weight.”
Skipping meals triggers our brains to believe food may be scarce. From an evolutionary perspective, our bodies are genetically predisposed to last through famine by storing food as fat when supplies are hard to find. In 2013, skipping meals may flip that “famine” switch, despite the fact that a sandwich is only a few steps away. “When you skip a meal, a few things can happen,” Reddy says. “You may turn on genes that tell you to store food, leading to weight gain. Blood sugar drops when we skip meals, which can cause poor concentration, irritability, and sugar or caffeine cravings. Thyroid hormones may decrease in order to conserve energy, which can lead to a slowed metabolism.” In short, an irregular eating schedule can throw our metabolism and blood sugar out of whack.
A 2007 study by the National Institute on Aging backs this up: Healthy male and female subjects who skipped most of their meals and then consumed their entire day’s calories in the evening had elevated fasting glucose levels and delayed insulin response—both precursors to diabetes.
The Most Important Meal of the Day
Understanding how skipping meals and then eating a lot can slow our metabolism and interfere with healthy blood sugar levels gives us a deeper appreciation for sumo wrestlers’ eating habits (and helps us learn how to avoid them). Sumo wrestlers earn their living with their massive size, and follow a very specific eating schedule to put on maximum poundage. They wake up and work out on an empty stomach, then wait until 11 a.m. to eat (a very large) breakfast. After breakfast, rather than exercising, they take a long nap, which helps the body store food as fat. Their second meal is dinner at 6 or 7 p.m.
If you’d like to maintain weight or lose weight—and keep an effective metabolism—do the opposite of what sumo wrestlers do. You may have heard the old adage “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” A 2013 study from Tel Aviv bears this out. A group of 93 overweight or obese women with metabolic syndrome were randomly assigned to one of two groups that consumed the same number of calories per day. The women who ate most of their calories at breakfast lost more weight and achieved more stable hormone levels than the group who consumed most of their calories at dinner.
“In many people, skipping any meal can lead to excess hunger and overeating at the next meal. I believe breakfast sets the tone for the day,” says Kelly Morrow, a registered dietitian and professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science at Bastyr University. “If your breakfast is full of sugar, it can lead to a blood sugar roller coaster that makes it hard to accurately tune into true hunger and satiety cues. If your breakfast is balanced and contains protein and complex carbohydrates, it can keep the blood sugar balanced and help control cravings and excess hunger.”
A Healthy Eating Schedule
There’s no right answer to the “three larger meals or five smaller meals” debate. It depends upon which pattern of eating feels best to you. In my practice, I’ve found that eating a meal that includes protein every four to five hours can help my clients regulate blood sugar and stimulate metabolism. That means someone eating breakfast at 7 a.m. would eat lunch by noon and dinner by five. This isn’t always possible, which is where snacks and/or mini-meals might come in. If breakfast is at 7 a.m., lunch is at noon and dinner is at 8, a mid-afternoon snack rich in protein and fat (think fruit and nuts, cheese and veggies, or plain yogurt) can save you from that 3 p.m. blood sugar crash. However, if three decent-sized meals per day seem to be keeping my clients satisfied and in good health, it doesn’t make sense to add more meals.
As for what to eat when—in brief, a meal or snack that includes protein and fat regulates blood sugar better (and keeps you fuller) than one composed only of carbohydrates (especially the refined variety), which sends blood sugar skyrocketing and leaves you hungry an hour later. A good starting point: three nutrient-dense meals per day, along with an optional snack in the mid-afternoon. Each meal should include high-quality proteins and fats.
“Having more complex carbs earlier in the day—like at breakfast and lunch—provides your body with the energy it needs throughout the day,” Reddy says. “Make sure the carbs are of good quality such as whole oats or brown rice—we’re not talking about cereal or white bread. But eating lots of carbs late at night, especially refined ones, can lead to weight gain and health problems.”
“Snacking should be in response to hunger and not in response to the environment or your emotions,” says Linda Craighead, a professor of psychology at Emory University and author of The Appetite Awareness Workbook. We have a tendency to suddenly become hungry when a mouthwatering treat is placed in our vicinity or when we’re under stress, she says. If an impulse to snack arises, consider what you had for your last meal and how long ago you ate it—meals that are too small or short on protein, fat or nutrients can leave us hungry in an hour or two. If you think your last meal might have been deficient in size or quality, try eating a small, protein-dense snack, then check in after half an hour to see whether you feel satiated. If you’re pretty sure you’re not hungry, consider whether you’re just tempted by your coworker’s cupcakes or seeking reprieve from stress and anxiety, and take a few deep breaths or a walk around the block instead.
Intuitive Eating, Plus Structure
Knowing all the science is great, but when it comes to finding a healthy eating schedule that works for you, simply following rules is not enough. Here’s where listening to your body comes in. Adherents of intuitive eating pay close attention to the specific foods their body is asking for, as well as hunger and fullness cues. From a broader perspective, intuitive eating rejects the restrictive “diet” mentality and encourages us to find peace with food. It also addresses the difference between eating from hunger and eating from emotion.
The problem with adhering entirely to intuitive eating is that, after years of unstable eating patterns, many of us aren’t sure how to tell the difference between cravings and our bodies’ true needs. As Morrow puts it, “People need to get in touch with their hunger and satiety cues first before they can be intuitive eaters. Sometimes they need more structure and support before they can learn to trust themselves.”
Putting It All Together
Maintaining stable blood sugar by eating regular meals of high-quality foods helps the body run better on a cellular level, achieving good health and appropriate weight. Start with a structure of three meals a day, with optional snacks if you truly feel hungry, and remember to eat a large, satisfying breakfast and avoid late-night feasts. Within that framework, pay attention to your own unique needs and rhythms to learn what kind of eating patterns—and which foods—best suit your body. To identify these needs, here are two of the techniques I use with my clients:
1. Find somewhere quiet and take several deep belly breaths. Let yourself relax, quiet your mind, and bring your attention into your body. As you breathe, take some time to notice what sensations are occurring in your body. What’s tense, and what’s loose? What feels heavy, and what feels light? Within this context, you can start to observe how hungry or full you may be. You can also use this method to identify how you feel before and after eating specific foods, as well as which foods “work” for your body and which ones don’t. It’s a way of getting out of overintellectualizing and instead learning to trust your “gut”—literally!
2. Spend at least three consecutive days, and at most, one week (so you don’t drive yourself nuts!) completing a daily food journal. This should include what you eat and drink, the amounts and times of day when you’re consuming it, and—this is crucial—your energy level, emotional state and mental state before and after you consume it. Tracking your food and beverage intake in this way can help you identify important patterns that may not be evident otherwise. For instance, you might discover that you have a problem with late-night snacking because you’re not eating enough during the day. Or perhaps you’ll learn which foods cause the sluggishness that troubles you.
Ultimately, by blending science with intuition, you’ll determine a healthy eating schedule that works best for your body, and you’ll be able to make shifts over time as your body’s requests inevitably shift. The ideas here can certainly help in this process, but if clarity still eludes you, consider contacting a trained professional for support.
Stephanie Small is a licensed clinical social worker and holistic nutritionist (and former sugar addict) who helps women end emotional eating and sugar addiction without feeling deprived. She has a private practice in Boulder, Colorado, and via Skype. She also offers online programs, writes, blogs and speaks at live events. Learn more at Stephanie Small Health.