With studies landing on both sides of the fence, timing your biggest meal is a controversial topic.
We’ve all heard the rules for a leaner physique: Go big for your morning meal and lighten up in the evening. Quit that nighttime snacking. No carbs after 3 p.m. But the dictates depend on the source, because there’s also evidence that benefits can be gained from flipping those rules on their head.
“Yes, there are studies that support the idea of consuming most of your calories in a bigger morning meal, but there are also studies that show the opposite,” says Precision Nutrition coach Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS. “I know of 3 studies that have found breakfast eating more beneficial, 2 that found nighttime eating more beneficial and 2 that showed no difference. And it’s important to remember that there are always outliers within each study, such as individuals in a breakfast study who didn’t see overall improvements.”
The latest research to challenge the status quo: In a 6-month study that focused on eating a larger meal with the majority of the day’s carbs at night, participants lost weight, body fat and inches from their waists, and saw improvements in their glucose control, inflammation markers and blood lipids, notes St. Pierre. “It’s part of a newer concept called carb backloading, which essentially follows the protocol of eating more of your carbohydrates in a bigger evening meal—the opposite of what we’ve been taught.”
Confused? If you’re wondering what all this dissent in the research ranks means for you—and your breakfast or dinner tomorrow—consider the bigger picture. “It teaches us that we all fit on a bell-curve to some degree. It’s about individual variability, not a one-size-fits-all model,” says St. Pierre. “And for all those people who’ve long been saying that they don’t do well with breakfast and rather prefer their bigger meal at night, well, now the research supports you.”
What may be at play here are our natural circadian rhythms. “Your hypothalamus controls your internal biological clock and people have variances. If you’ve always felt like a night owl or a morning person, it may naturally fit with how you prefer to eat,” says St. Pierre, who recommends listening to your body and tracking your own evidence.
Here’s how to self-assess, in three easy steps:
1. Get a baseline of your scale weight, and measure your waist, bicep, thigh and calf circumferences. Then if you tend to favor breakfast, try eating your bigger meal in the morning and lighter at night for one month.
2. Gather your data. “You’re looking for differences in the numbers you see on the scale and in your measurements as well as subjective data, like positive or negative changes in your energy level, mood, digestion, and sleep,” says St. Pierre.
3. If you see any adverse changes, reverse your eating for the next month. Or if you’re feeling great after that first month, stick with it. Says St. Pierre, “Even if you don’t see big improvements, if you’re eating a healthy, appropriate amount and you enjoy the timing of your bigger meal then it’s still a win.”