Timing is everything: Why eating on a regular schedule supports overall well-being

| December 9, 2022
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Creating meals that have the right balance of nutrients is one of the keys to good health, or at least it seems that way when you’re scrolling through TikTok or Instagram reels for the next quick and tasty viral recipe. But there’s another often overlooked element to nutrition: consuming those meals at the right times. 

Understanding the science behind meal timing can have a huge impact on your health, both physically and mentally. Research suggests that a person’s ability to efficiently regulate their appetite is linked to a biological pattern called circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms follow a 24-hour cycle that regulates the timing of physiology, metabolism, and behavior. At optimum performance, they initiate wake and sleep cycles, and also signal feeding, and fasting bodily states.

It is imperative that eating and sleeping behaviors align with circadian rhythms. When these rhythms are consistently disrupted, it can lead to an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. 

Mild dyssynchronous behavioral patterns such as variability in mealtimes and sleep patterns throughout the week are common, and are sometimes called social and eating jetlag. Therefore, despite all the meal prep and consistency of FoodTok’s recipes, misalignment of your mealtimes with your bodily clock can cancel out all the benefits of your healthy diet. 

What does this mean for your mealtimes? Each of us requires a given amount of energy (in calories) each day. This energy is harvested from the carbs, proteins, and fats that we consume. When we fail to eat adequately throughout the day (for example, only one or two meals), it can be challenging to meet our energy and nutritional needs. Regular meal timing also helps to promote regular digestive patterns.  

I recommend consuming something within two hours of waking up regardless of feeling hungry or not. Sometimes we fail to recognize hunger early in the mornings because the body ceases hunger cues overnight during its powered-down state. However, I strongly encourage you to try having something small. This meal breaks the overnight fast and provides your body with fuel and nourishment to start and power throughout the day.  

It’s also important to note that caffeine is an appetite suppressant, so if you find that you’re fine with solely coffee in the morning, it’s possible that that alone might be killing your drive to eat something with sustenance. 

Once you have your first meal, depending on its content and balance, it’s recommended to have each subsequent meal every three to four hours to prevent dips in blood sugar levels (which can lead to feeling hangry). Meals should include a protein-rich food, high-fiber starches, vegetables, fruits, and fat.  

An important note: regardless of how long it’s been since your last meal, if you’re hungry, eat. It is important to acknowledge and respond to your hunger cues regardless of a meal schedule. Your hunger signals are your body’s way of telling you it needs fuel to feel and function at its best.  If you ignore your body’s hunger cues—perhaps from a packed schedule, or simply mistrusting that you need to eat—or if your cues have become dormant from years of denying them, you can become dizzy, lightheaded, irritable, and experience decreased focus and concentration. 

There are various approaches to eating, and having a meal plan that makes you feel your best may not exactly suit someone else (and vice versa). The sample schedule below may be a good place to start to see what works for you. 

Sample Mealtime Schedule  

6:00 – 9:45 am. Break your fast. This window is the most recommended time to have breakfast. Think of a balanced breakfast as one that includes lean protein like eggs, lean pork sausage, tofu, Greek yogurt, nut butter, or plant seeds (hemp, chia); low-sugar fruit like berries, apples, citrus, or peaches; and, a complex carb like granola, whole wheat toast, or oats. 

10:00 – 11:00. Snack it up. Given breakfast has now been a few hours ago and lunch still feels light years away, I recommend having something light but with flavors and nutrients that are complimentary of one another, like an apple with peanut butter, a handful of nuts with some cheese, or whole grain crackers with deli meat. The high-fiber, high-protein combination is bound to curb hunger and cravings.  

1:00. Lunch Break. Email notifications, studying, lab reports, balancing books, and interpreting data can make it tempting to postpone lunch, but waiting until later in the afternoon and evening could result in overeating and making less healthy choices. Research supports eating an earlier lunch. Those who eat lunch around 4:30 are found to have decreased glucose tolerance, which can lead to decreased memory function and impaired cognition, compared to those who have lunch at 1-2 pm.  

3:00 – 4:00. Snack again. As with your morning snack, a high-fiber, high-protein combo is most effective for curbing hunger.

6:30 pm. Dinnertime. It’s imperative to have a hearty, balanced dinner during the early evening. Research supports having dinner at 6-7 pm opposed to 10 pm increases usage of calories at rest. As the day progresses, the body begins to change its metabolism resulting in a decrease in the amount of energy that’s being used. Eating an earlier dinner and skipping late night (10 pm and after) meal can also help you sleep better. A dinner that is high in fiber (vegetables and complex carbs) and low in saturated fat can help you fall asleep faster and increase your time in dreamland.  

If following the above schedule is incompatible with your schedule, at best try to consume a substantive meal every four hours, containing complex carbs like rice, potatoes, or grains; lean protein like eggs, chicken, beef, pork, tofu; and a vegetable, with water. Be sure to keep pocket snacks containing protein on hand like protein bars, fruit snacks, and cheese sticks for durable energy between meals. 

Understanding the science behind meal timing could have a huge impact on your health, both physically and mentally. It could be as simple as adjusting when you consume breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks along with their nutrient content.

In summary: 

  • breakfast within 2 hours of rising with focus on lean protein and low-sugar fruit; 
  • lunch: midday paying attention to lean protein + complex carbs; 
  • dinner before 8 pm with focus on fiber + low saturated fat; 
  • and snacks focusing on high fiber + lean protein.

Some days we need to eat more often and bigger portions and other days we might find that we aren’t as hungry and that’s okay; simply adjust your portion sizes! Whatever you do, avoid skipping meals. Your body is counting on you.