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Strategic Eating for Weight Loss: Best Times To Eat During the Day

Marie Funk, MS, RD, LDN

Published in Weight Loss

9 min read

April 26, 2022
December 1, 2023
a cup of coffee, a clock and flowers
a cup of coffee, a clock and flowers

We're living a faster-paced life than ever before, with longer hours at work and things happening quickly and continuously all around us. Juggling multiple tasks throughout the day means you're likely looking at convenience foods, getting takeout, or relying on ready-meals. But even if you prioritize meal prep to solve that problem, what happens when you're too busy to eat? 

Irregular eating patterns are another problem, so finding ways to get back into a more stable diet is more important. Of course, keep in mind that it's always important to speak with your doctor about any medical conditions (like diabetes) and listen to internal hunger cues when establishing an eating pattern. 

Like meal frequency, eating patterns will also change based on your health goals. For example, if you want to lose weight, you may have to structure your dietary goals around this. So, what are some of the best times to eat for weight loss? Here are some suggestions for timing your meals to encourage optimal digestion and weight loss. 

Is There Scientific Evidence That Certain Times of Eating Are More Conducive to Weight Loss? 

a person making a green smoothie

To understand meal timing, it's a good idea to move away from the idea of eating for comfort and more towards eating to fuel your body. You need fuel for most activities, right? For most people, these activities occur during the day. 

It means your body typically processes food for energy during the day. At night, your body is more focused on rest and repair. This idea would suggest that your body slows down and is less efficient in processing foods at night.

One of the first studies that looked at the impact of food timing on metabolism was conducted in mice. Mice are nocturnal, which means they're active during moonlight and sleeping during daylight. The research found that mice fed with a high-fat diet during their active period gained less weight than those fed a similar high-fat diet during rest when feeding is usually reduced. 

These results inspired human studies into whether food timing affects body weight, and it turns out that it matters!

When Should You Eat Breakfast?

a bowl of cereal, yogurt and jam

According to Dr. Thanu Jey, "research suggests that there is no specific best time to eat breakfast that applies to everyone. The timing of breakfast can vary depending on individual preferences, lifestyle, and cultural factors. Ultimately, it is important to listen to your body's hunger cues and choose a breakfast time that works best for you."

In animal studies, findings have shown that the first meal of the day determines the pattern of the peripheral internal clocks. This study suggests that you may want to consider eating within the first few hours of waking to get your day off to a good start

It also allows complete digestion and rest for a few hours before the second meal of the day. Of course, everyone is different and waking patterns vary from person to person, so it's essential to experiment for yourself. 

Is It Ever Appropriate To Skip Breakfast?

Some research suggests that skipping breakfast increases postprandial responses after lunch and dinner due to impaired insulin response. Having said that, it may make sense to skip breakfast if you're practicing Intermittent Fasting, and this time of the day is during your fasting window. 

For some who follow a 16/8 fasting schedule (eating during an eight-hour window and fasting for 16 hours), the fasting period could begin after dinner between 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. and not end until closer to lunch the next day. 

In this instance, the benefits of skipping breakfast are similar to the benefits of fasting. Research shows that intermittent fasting can reduce overall calorie intake, promote weight loss, and improve metabolic health.

Healthy and Tasty Breakfast Ideas to Lose Weight

  • A Greek yogurt bowl: Make sure it's plain, unsweetened yogurt. Eat it topped with low glycemic fruits such as blueberries, nuts, and seeds.
  • Chia seed pudding: Make with kefir or greek yogurt and topped with your favorite fruit and nuts.
  • Easy egg muffins: Pour eggs mixed with a splash of milk (any kind) over lightly sautéed veggies (mushrooms, onions, jalapeños, spinach) and bake in a muffin tin at 350 degrees until set (20 to 30 minutes). Top with feta. 

When Should You Eat Lunch?

a bowl of salad with veggies, salmon and avocado

Studies suggest eating lunch between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. for optimal results. But of course, it’s important to remember that we’re all different, so this may not be the same for everyone. 

A Spanish study experimented with the timing of lunch and weight loss to see if there was a correlation with when you eat your main meal. 

Results from the study indicated that late lunch eaters (after 3 p.m.) lost less weight during the experiment than early lunch eaters (before 3 p.m.). This was despite having similar age, appetite hormones, energy intake and expenditure, sleep duration or sleep duration or macronutrients distribution. 

A similar study found that eating after 4:30 p.m. decreased glucose tolerance, resting energy expenditure, and carbohydrate oxidation than eating closer to 1 p.m. 

Is It Ever Appropriate To Skip Lunch?

Skipping lunch may be tempting if you are busy or distracted, but it can cause problems later in the day. Skipping lunch can deplete your body of energy, causing brain fog or drowsiness. 

In addition, you may also feel overly hungry in the afternoon leading to overeating in your final meal. 

Ultimately, the best approach is to listen to your internal cues to determine your hunger level and make the best decision. You could always reduce your lunch portions if you find your appetite is not as large as expected.

Healthy and Tasty Lunch Ideas to Lose Weight

  • A protein box: Prep hard-boiled eggs, nuts, berries, chopped vegetables, and hummus in a bento box container. It's great for eating on the go or when time and energy are limited.
  • A salmon salad: Sear a salmon filet and place it on top of a bed of greens. Add hard-boiled eggs, onions, and tomatoes. Drizzle a quick dressing with vinegar, mustard, olive oil, and lemon over the top. 
  • Taco salad: Chop vegetables like kale, shredded cabbage, and raw broccoli, and top with beans and protein (of your choice, seasoned with taco seasoning). Add salsa, plain greek yogurt, and guacamole.

When Should You Eat Dinner?

a person eating veggies and avocado salad

Ideally, your final meal of the day would be a minimum of three to four hours before you go to bed. Studies have shown that having a late dinner or eating too late at night has links to an increased risk of obesity and metabolic disruptions like dyslipidemia and hyperglycemia

A study in overweight/obese women with metabolic syndrome showed that those with higher caloric intake during dinner had more significant insulin resistance than those with a higher caloric intake during breakfast. This finding suggests that reducing intake at dinner may help reduce insulin resistance over time. 

A large Japanese study also demonstrated that eating late was associated with hyperglycemia independent of BMI. Studies also found that being awake and eating during moonlight hours caused multiple metabolic changes, including increased postprandial glucose and insulin concentrations. 

Is It Ever Appropriate To Skip Dinner?

For most people with normal metabolisms, skipping dinner or eating it early in the afternoon may be beneficial. It may align better with our internal clocks, which optimize digestion and absorption of nutrients. 

Due to the need for glucose stability, if you're managing chronic conditions like diabetes, this idea may be a matter to discuss with your doctor before making any changes. Again, it's also important to follow your internal hunger cues to determine when to start an overnight fast until the morning hours.

Healthy and Tasty Dinner Ideas to Lose Weight

  • Consider an easy, mess-free meal by utilizing sheet pan dinners. Pick a starch, a protein, and vegetable(s). Toss all the ingredients with olive oil and bake. You may need to bake the starch for a little longer than the protein or vegetable. 
  • In a large cast-iron skillet or wok, stir-fry a pile of fresh veggies. Pick anything from onions, cabbage, carrots, and snap peas to zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, celery, and bok choy. Add a protein like sliced grass-fed beef, chicken, or tofu and stir-fry, then add in fresh garlic and ginger, soy sauce (or liquid aminos), and finish with a drizzle of sesame oil.
  • Make your own chili with grass-fed beef, tomatoes, broth, and vegetables in a slow cooker before heading out for the day. You could also make a homemade vegetable soup (chopped vegetables, beans, broth, and seasonings) with whatever you have on hand.

Are There Good Times to Eat Snacks?

a plate of a salad

Eating stimulates hormones like insulin to help process incoming food. Meals with refined carbohydrates added sugars, and/or large portion sizes stimulate insulin the most. Still, all foods have at least a small impact. So when we are grazing throughout the day, our body is always in a "fed" state. If you allow some time between meals, you give your body rest from this cycle. It may be something to experiment with to see what works best for you.

To date, research has not sufficiently demonstrated a causal relationship between snack foods and obesity. Results have been mixed, with various and inconsistent exposures. For example, one study of normal-weight women found that those with strong urges for snack foods and low ability to control these urges gained the most weight. Another reason for the weight gain and snacking association may be increased portion sizes. 

Increasing portions by half was found to increase daily energy intake by 16 percent, and doubling your portions increased energy intake by 26 percent. That said, it may be a good idea to have a small snack if several hours pass between your meals and your blood glucose levels dip. The snack would give you the energy needed to curb your appetite and increase glucose levels to prevent overeating at the next meal. 

If your snacking isn’t related to actual hunger, eating can lead to unwanted weight gain due to adding excess calories. Frequent snacking can also reduce hunger at mealtimes or cause one to skip a meal entirely, which increases the risk of losing out on essential nutrients.

A general guideline for having a snack is that it should be at least two to three hours after a meal to allow for complete digestion. Consider eating a snack with a combination of protein and/or fiber. 

Some Helpful Examples

  1. A handful of nuts and berries
  2. Hummus with cucumbers or snap peas
  3. Tuna and avocado salad with celery.

Timing and Weight-Loss Takeaways

So, what's the perfect time to eat for weight loss? There may not be one ideal time for everyone, but there are certainly some hours that may be better than others. 

Dr. Thanu Jey adds, "meal timing can play a role in weight loss, but it is not the sole determining factor. The overall quality and quantity of the food consumed, as well as the individual's overall calorie balance, are also important considerations."

Overall, the takeaway here is this: while it's highly individualized, some general guidelines suggest that eating breakfast by 9 a.m., lunch between 12 p.m. and 2 p.m., and dinner at least four hours before bed can set your body up for optimal digestion and absorption of nutrients. Snacks may seem tempting, but they can lead to unnecessary calorie intake if eaten for the wrong reasons. 

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Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Reviewed by: Carlee Hayes, RDN, CD

Carlee's training at Western Illinois University and an internship at the Memphis VA Hospital lead her to a career in outpatient counseling and bariatric nutrition therapy. In these positions, Carlee realized many of the disease states (upwards of 80%!) her patients experienced were actually preventable. She knew she had to dig deeper into preventative health and has since been passionate about helping people translate this complex glucose data into actionable changes anyone can implement into their everyday lives.