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Find a Healthful Eating Schedule

When it comes to achieving optimal health, when we eat might be nearly as important as what we eat. Find your ideal eating schedule now.

| January/February 2014

  • In studies, women who eat most of their calories at breakfast lose more weight—even when consuming the same number of calories.
    Photo By Paul Bradbury/iStockphoto

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.

Grax McCoar
12/26/2013 2:20:45 PM

Unfortunately, those with ADD who eat a large high carb breakfast are more likely to go back to sleep for two hours. Same is true for some diabetics.

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