Most diet experts say losing weight is simply a matter of taking in fewer calories than you burn. End of story. In this scenario, all calories are created equal.
However, I’ve just read some interesting new research that suggests another factor may be at play. It seems a calorie may be less fattening if it’s eaten at the right time of day. And more fattening if it’s eaten at the wrong time of day.
If you are like me, you guessed that… eating most of your calories at breakfast is the way to go.
If you did, you would also be incorrect.
So what’s the meal that’s most important to time right? You’ll find out in a minute…
When to Eat Your Biggest Meal
Let’s take a look at the study. Over a five-month period, Harvard researchers followed 420 middle-aged overweight dieters. The dieters were simply encouraged to follow a traditional Mediterranean diet, which includes plenty of fish, olive oil, vegetables and whole grains.
The diet also emphasized lunch as the main meal. Why is this important? Because it was this meal that demonstrated that a calorie might not just be a calorie.
It turns out that those who ate this main meal before 3:00 pm lost significantly more weight, and at a faster rate than those who ate a later lunch.1 And, the early lunch eaters also had significantly better insulin sensitivity than the late lunch eaters.
I was more than a little surprised to see these results. Especially when you consider that the participants consumed the same number of calories per day, the same type of calories per day, and had similar amounts of activity levels.
What is also surprising is that timing of breakfast and dinner did NOT have an effect. Only the timing of the main meal of the day made a difference… I find this remarkable.
Why Did Early Lunch Eaters Lose More?
So why did the early-lunch eaters lose more weight than those who ate it later? The research isn’t clear, but one theory is that sugar may be processed differently depending on the time of day. Remember, the early lunch eaters had better insulin sensitivity than late lunch eaters.
And why should that matter, you ask?
Here’s why: After you eat, the pancreas pumps out insulin to shuttle the sugar out of your bloodstream and into your cells. Once inside the cells, the sugar is either used for energy, or converted into fat. When insulin is working in top form (aka better insulin sensitivity), it’s more easily able to get the sugar into the cells for energy and less is stored in your body as fat.
Again, we’re not sure this is the answer. However the fact that early lunch eaters had better insulin sensitivity than late lunch eaters makes it a good guess.
What are some diet truths you’re sure about? Tell me about them and I’ll investigate. As you can see, even the experts can be wrong sometimes.
Steve Sisskind, M.D.
Hi, I'm Dr. Steve Sisskind, Chief Medical Officer & Founder at RealDose Nutrition.
As a young physician, I struggled because my patients came to me with serious health issues, but I didn't have the right tools to help them. Medical school taught me how to put "band aids" on their symptoms with drugs and surgery, but not how to address the root causes of their problems.
Years later I discovered a better approach... based on the fundamental idea that the power of nutrition can transform your health and vitality. But there's a lot of confusion... What foods should I eat? Which supplements should I take? What does the science say?
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1. Garaulet M, Gómez-Abellán P, Alburquerque-Béjar JJ, Lee YC, Ordovás JM, Scheer FA. Timing of food intake predicts weight loss effectiveness. Int J Obes (Lond). 2013 Jan 29. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2012.229. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 23357955.