If you were to ask even five nutrition authorities about the best time to eat your day’s meals, chances of getting a unanimous answer are fairly slim.
At some point, you’ve probably heard that breakfast should be the biggest meal of the day – but Ayurveda advises a very light breakfast and an early, larger lunch. Eating a large amount of protein with breakfast has been clinically demonstrated to improve satiety and metabolism – but a study of people with the longest, healthiest lives globally shows that they tend to eat predominantly carbohydrates for breakfast.
There are a number of similarly conflicting strategies for meal-planning. All depend on what you hope to achieve. Would you like to understand how to eat meals when you’re trying to lose weight, or would you rather get advice on meal plans for muscle-building purposes? The ideal diet for any individual is subjective and largely depends on one’s lifestyle and health goals.
Here’s a look at some of the most common meal-timing practices, along with their benefits and whom they’re best suited for.
Strategy #1: 5-6 Small Meals
What it involves:
Breaking up the day’s meals into small portions, spread across breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, an evening snack, dinner, and a (optional) bedtime snack.
Best suited for:
- People trying to build muscle
- People with blood sugar issues
- People trying to lose weight
Eating small meals through the day ensures that our body is constantly fueled with the nutrients it needs, a steady supply of which is particularly useful when trying to build muscle or lose weight.
Those who exercise a lot, especially weight-lifters, can adopt this strategy by consuming protein-rich meals through the day. This would mean getting a constant supply of amino acids (building blocks of protein), which would repair and rebuild muscles that have been damaged during exercise. In contrast, any period of starvation would drive the body into a ‘catabolic state’, which is when the muscles themselves get broken down in order to supply the required amino acids (that aren’t coming from our diet) – you can see how this would be hugely counterproductive!1,4
Small meals through the day also prevent spikes in insulin, which is especially beneficial for people with blood sugar issues.2 After 7-8 hours without food (roughly the time between lunch and dinner), our body moves towards a fasting state. A meal at this point causes a rapid rise in blood sugar, and consequently insulin, which can be problematic for people with blood sugar issues or insulin resistance.
As for people trying to lose weight, five to six small, carefully planned meals spread through the day can help prevent the cravings that tend to come with calorie-restricting weight-loss programmes.
Planning 5-6 meals a day can turn out to be a tedious task. Additionally, most of us have jobs that keep us out of the house for a better part of the day, so sticking to this strategy would involve carrying around 3 meals. So, following this would require a reasonable amount of flexibility, planning and effort.
Strategy #2: Large to Small Meals
What it involves:
Breakfast is the largest meal of the day, with a moderate lunch and a light dinner.
Best suited for:
- People with a sedentary lifestyle looking to stay healthy
- Those who have morning exercise routines
- People looking to lose weight
- Diabetics and insulin resistant individuals
For reasons not fully understood, our body’s ability to process glucose decreases from morning to evening, as does the secretion of insulin, a hormone that enables our cells to use up the glucose. This is believed to be an evolutionary outcome that primes our muscles and brains to utilise glucose when it’s needed the most: during the day. While the difference is not dramatic for healthy individuals, it is a concern for diabetics, and insulin resistant and overweight individuals.
So, the age-old advice of “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper” may be best suited for a sedentary lifestyle, which involves being alerter and more energetic in the first half of the day, with a decrease in (both mental and physical) activity towards the end of the day. For anyone who spends most of their days sitting down, loading up on calories during dinner doesn’t serve any biological purpose, and excess calories are more likely to be stored as fat.
Eating a light dinner also has the added advantage of being digested faster; if you’ve ever overeaten at dinner and felt uncomfortable while trying to sleep, it’s because our bodies would ideally need a few hours to allow dinner to digest, for better sleep quality.
This approach is also helpful for those who exercise in the morning because eating a large meal after exercise ensures that our body has access to the nutrients it needs for recovering, rebuilding and growing.3
1] Given the structure of our day, dinner tends to be the most culturally significant meal, where the entire family gets together after work and school – it’s also the most calorie-rich meal of the day.
2] People may get hungry before bed, which may encourage snacking on the wrong foods. While going to bed on a full stomach is uncomfortable, being hungry can make it equally difficult to get sleep.
Strategy #3: Light breakfasts, and moderate lunches and dinners
What it involves:
Keeping breakfast light, with a moderate lunch as well as dinner.
Best suited for:
- Individuals who are in good health and are looking to maintain it
- Those who exercise in the evenings
Historically, humans have woken up around sunrise and gone about their days tending to crops, foraging or hunting for food. Most of their activity took place between sunrise and noon, justifying the need for a large lunch. Even today, traditional agrarian societies tend to have light breakfasts, heavy lunches and light dinners.
An interesting study of the world’s “Blue Zones”, i.e., regions where people live the longest, healthiest lives, found that the people there tend to follow this approach to meals (along with a host of other health-promoting lifestyle habits, including midday naps).6 This strategy is also recommended by Ayurvedic practitioners who believe that our body needs some time after waking up before it can efficiently digest heavy meals.
1] The benefits of this approach are hugely dependent on the quality and quantity of food consumed during dinner. As mentioned earlier, our bodies tend to process sugar less efficiently at night; carbohydrate-rich dinners and caloric excesses can lead to an increase in fat and a host of health issues.
2] The “Blue Zone” study covers a host of lifestyle factors that accompany this dietary strategy, from controlling quantities to eating great amounts of fresh fruit and vegetables, with limited protein. Adopting this strategy with a modern diet that’s high in processed foods may be counterproductive.
Since each approach has its benefits and drawbacks, the best approach would boil down to the most convenient one that helps you achieve your health goals – the more convenient it is, the better it can be sustained. Having said all of this, it is far more important to focus on what and how much we eat than when we eat!
- Areta et al. The Journal of Physiology 2013, 591 (9): 2319-2331
- Farshchi et al. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2005, 81(1): 16-24
- Jenkins et al. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 1992, 55(2): 461-467
- Hawley et al. The British Journal of Nutrition 1997, 77(S1): S91- S103
- Jakubowicz et al. Obesity 2013, 21 (12): 2504-2512
- Dan Buettner, The Blue Zone Diet