Weight loss advice tends to focus on what to eat to lose weight so much that many of us are forgetting to look at other factors - like the best time to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.
While ultimately whether you follow a diet that works (opens in new tab) and how much food you consume will be the marker of weight loss, choosing when you eat meals could have a huge impact on how hungry you get throughout the day. Luckily, recent research by the University of Murcia (opens in new tab) in Spain has pinpointed the best time to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for optimum performance through the day. They found that the best time to have breakfast is just after 7am - 7.11am to be precise. It's also better to get stuck into your lunch sooner rather than later - between 12.30 and 1pm. 12.38pm is the best time. And when it comes to dinner, the later you leave it the worse it can be for your diet. So try to eat dinner between 6pm and 6.30pm, with 6.14pm being the best time according to the study.
But if you're a late riser and don't see yourself making a healthy breakfast (opens in new tab) before the sunrise, "aiming to eat within 1 hour of waking is ideal," says food scientist Dr Claire Shortt (opens in new tab). "It keeps our hunger hormones in check and keeps us fuller and satisfied for longer."
Ultimately, she says, what time you eat is "all about balance". "For the remaining meals of the day, it makes sense to spread out your food intake to maintain energy. Our body responds well to routine, so sticking to a 1 pm lunchtime and 6 pm dinner time if life allows is ideal. Delaying meals too late in the afternoon and evening may result in overeating or making poor food choices."
When is the best time for snacking?
According to the same research by the University of Murcia, 11.01 am, 3.14 pm and 9.31 pm are the best times for snacking. This is when your willpower is most likely to fail you. But, Claire says, you should consider having a snack anytime you're going for more than four hours between meals or after an intense workout.
What you choose to snack on is important, however, as not all the go-to snacks will keep you going between meals. "Choose ones that are high in fibre coupled with a high-protein ingredient as it will keep you feeling satisfied for longer. It's always important to practice mindful eating, even when snacking. Be present and be aware. Plan what you will eat for each meal and healthy snacks in advance to help you make better food choices and stick to them," Dr Shortt, lead scientist at Food Marble (opens in new tab), explains.
And while in some cases, following a high protein diet (opens in new tab) will be a great choice, be aware of eating too much of protein in a bid to stay full. "Avoid eating too much protein in one meal, especially with little or no fibre," she says. "There is always a limit on how much our body will absorb, so anything over that is made available to our gut microbes. Our gut microbes have a preference for high fibre foods, however if none are available, they will start to break down any undigested protein. This process can produce products that are harmful to gut health and longevity."
What's the most important rule when it comes to losing weight?
If you are looking to lose weight, the most important thing to remember is that you must be eating fewer calories than you're burning every day. Known as an energy deficit or a calorie deficit, research from the University of Vienna (opens in new tab) says this can be achieved in a number of ways - but unfortunately, it's actually the only way to lose weight. Diets like the 16:8 plan (opens in new tab) and low carb/high fat plans, including the Banting diet (opens in new tab), may promote themselves as sure-fire routes to weight loss but unless you're in this deficit, you won't see any changes.
This is because when you consume food, your body metabolises its properties for energy. This energy is what the body uses for everything from breathing to walking. If eat more food than what your body needs, you have more energy than is required and so the extra becomes fat. If you eat less than what you need, you'll have less energy and your body will turn to its fat stores for fuel. It's during the latter process that weight loss happens.
Skipping meals - what's the harm?
Whatever you do, don't skip meals. "Skipping breakfast tends to be associated with various markers of poor health like weight gain and impaired glucose metabolism," Dr Shortt says. "Often people find eating breakfast minimises impulsive snacking and sets the stage for good nutrition for the day. In particular, eating a well-balanced breakfast with a good source of protein, e.g. Greek yogurt (opens in new tab), coupled with high fibre food (opens in new tab) like berries can set up your metabolism for the day."
It's not only breakfast that people like to skip though. According to a 2016 review by the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University (opens in new tab) in Australia, breakfast was the most-commonly skipped meal. But dinner came in a close second, with up to 57% of people opting out of their midday meal. The consequences of this don't only impact weight gain, a further study 2021 from Osaka University (opens in new tab) found, with those who skipped lunch or dinner more likely to be overweight. Both men and women who skipped their final meal of the day were more likely to sleep for fewer hours at night, leading to feelings of being tired all the time (opens in new tab). They were also more likely to be smokers or heavy-drinkers.
So what should a day's diet look like?
As well as following the best time to eat breakfast lunch and dinner, you need to get into a calorie deficit. To find yours, have a look at a calorie calculator (opens in new tab) - this will give you your deficit threshold, along with your maintenance level. For example, if you're a 30-year-old woman who's 5 ft 4 and weighs 70kg (as is average for the UK) then you're calorie target to lose 0.25 kg per week will be 1,677 calories per day.
Following that threshold, this is what your day could look like:
Try hitting 400 calories if you can with some low calorie breakfast recipes (opens in new tab), just like these ones...
- Blackcurrant bircher muesli: 395cals
- Quick farmhouse fry-up: 221cals + 250ml glass of orange juice: 118cals = 339cals
- Slimming World's muffins with smoked salmon: 295cals + Tall Starbucks cappuccino: 90cals = 385cals
At lunchtime (between 12.30pm and 1pm), stick to no more than 500 calories here too. You'll need a boost halfway through the day and it's important to give your body the nutrients and protein it needs. For this, opt for complex instead of refined carbohydrates such as those found in white pasta, rice and bread. You'll stay fuller for longer and won't experience an energy drop a couple of hours after lunch. Go for some of these low calorie lunch ideas (opens in new tab) for inspiration...
- Ainsley Harriott's chicken pasta with peas: 426cals
- Spring vegetable tortilla (opens in new tab): 390cals
- Quick Quorn lunch bowl (opens in new tab): 161cals + 1 wholemeal roll: 155cals = 316cals
Dinner (between 6pm and 6.30pm) should be the last meal of the day, so aim for around 500 calories. You don't want to feel too full before bed so it's best to base your dinner around protein and vegetables, rather than going for a carb-heavy pasta dish. For more inspiration, take a look at some of these healthy low calorie dinner recipes (opens in new tab).
- Mellow-spiced chicken and chickpeas: 309cals
- Peppers with spicy turkey stuffing: 302cals
- Split pea and vegetable curry: 300cals
Stick to 400 calories for breakfast, 500 for lunch and 500 for dinner. If you do this, you'll be able to treat yourself to two 100 calorie snacks (opens in new tab) throughout the day. You also have an extra 77 calories for any milk in tea or coffee that you have.
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Grace Walsh is a Features Writer for Goodto.com, covering breaking news health stories during the Covid-19 pandemic as well as lifestyle and entertainment topics. She has worked in media since graduating from the University of Warwick in 2019 with a degree in Classical Civilisation and a year spent abroad in Italy. It was here that Grace caught the bug for journalism, after becoming involved in the university’s student newspaper and radio station.
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