The Best Time to Eat Your Meals, According to Science

You check TikTok for healthy recipes, plan meals that have the right balance of nutrients, and stick to your shopping list. It sounds like the key to good health, right? It could be—as long as you eat those meals at the right times. While there are many different approaches to eating, and the meal plan that makes you feel your best may not suit someone else (and vice versa), you may want to try the following approach to see if it works for you.

“Your body handles the energy it takes in differently depending on the timing of your meals,” explains Jonathan C. Jun, MD, associate professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Research shows that your ability to burn calories and regulate your appetite are linked to your circadian rhythms; failing to match your mealtimes to your body clock may spike fat-storing hormones and cancel out all of the benefits of your healthy diet.

The idea of matching your mealtimes to your body clock is gaining steam thanks to robust evidence that it can help fuel weight loss; of course there’s even a “circadian rhythm diet” that’s popped up which is based on the ideal times to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

So, what does that mean for your mealtimes?

6:00 to 9:45 a.m. This is the best time for breakfast. Eating a high-protein breakfast—think eggs, lean pork sausage, Greek yogurt, or nut butter—first thing in the morning was linked to lower rates of weight gain, according to research published in the journal Obesity. Plus, those who ate during this window were less likely to feel hungry than those who postponed their breakfast until after 10 a.m.

Another reason to eat the most important meal of the day: Skipping it has been linked to a higher BMI.

10 a.m. Snacktime. If it’s been a few hours since breakfast—and lunch still feels light years away—Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut, suggests a light snack like an apple and peanut butter, or string cheese and a handful of whole-grain crackers. By combining a high-fiber food with a high-protein ingredient, you’ll take charge of your hunger and cravings.

“It helps to eat every three to five hours—so typically, one to two snacks a day—so that your blood sugar levels don’t dip and you don’t get hangry,” Gorin says.

Women who ate a 190-calorie snack at 10 a.m. burned more fat than those who ate the same snack at 11 p.m. Studies also show that a light snack could lead you to eat less at mealtimes and may help you up your intake of low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables.

1 p.m. Lunch break. The ringing phone, email notifications, and looming deadlines can make it tempting to postpone lunch, but waiting until late afternoon could cause you to overeat or make less healthy choices.

“You could be very, very hungry by the time you do sit down for a meal,” Gorin says. “If a plate of French fries is put in front of you, you may be inclined to eat the entire plate.”

Research supports the idea of eating an earlier lunch. Late eaters—who grabbed lunch at 4:30 p.m.—had decreased glucose tolerance, took longer to transform carbs into energy, and burned fewer calories at rest than those who ate lunch at 1 p.m.

Interestingly, despite eating a similar number of calories and micronutrients, dieters who ate lunch after 3 p.m. lost less weight than dieters who dined earlier.

6 p.m. Dinnertime. Sitting down to a late supper could lead to weight gain. Jun published a small study that showed eating at 6 p.m.—as opposed to 10 p.m.—led to a 10 percent increase in fat burning overnight.

“As the day draws on, your body begins to change its metabolism and decrease the amount of fat that’s being used,” Jun explains. “If you’re attempting to lose weight, later eating could contribute to weight gain.”

Eating an earlier dinner—and skipping late night snacking while binge-watching your favorite shows—could also help you sleep better. When those who normally ate one-third of their calories between 6 p.m. and midnight, stopped eating between dinner and breakfast the next morning, their weight decreased, and their time in dreamland increased.

A meal that is high in fiber and low in saturated fat can help you fall asleep faster. Understanding the science behind meal timing—and adjusting when you eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner—could have a big impact on your health.

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