When You Eat Matters More Than You Think

What you eat is important, no question. But what about when you eat? We shine a light on how the timing of your meals can affect your health.

The time of the day you eat most of your food can affect your weight, appetite, chronic disease risk and your body’s ability to burn and store fat.

It is called “chrononutrition”, and it is an emerging area of research that looks at how the timing of your meals affects your circadian rhythm.

Do not eat too much, too late

People whose largest meal is in the evening may be heavier and have bigger blood fats and blood sugar after eating, found a 2020 review of studies published the Journal of Neurochemistry.

But before you get too alarmed, this does not mean you have to skip dinner or go to bed hungry.

“Nothing bad is going to happen if you eat a balanced dinner earlier in the evening, or have a small protein-rich snack to quell hunger pangs before you go to bed,” says dietitian Abby Langer.

“Your body knows what to do with the food you consume in the dark, trust me.”

Alan Flanagan, author of the 2020 study, agrees, saying it is more about thinking about total energy distribution throughout the whole day.

“In people with impaired glucose control [higher than normal blood sugar levels] the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of greater distribution of total daily energy earlier in the days,” he says.

“When over 35 per cent of energy comes later in the day, that’s pretty consistently associated with increased BMI, body fat percentage, and cardiometabolic risk, in particular diabetes risk.”

Other studies from 2022 supported these conclusions, finding:

  • People were significantly hungrier than they had a late-eating compared to early-eating schedule.
  • Later eating caused people to burn less fat and fewer calories, and pushed their fat cells to store more fat.
  • Earlier eaters had greater improvements in their blood sugar, cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity (a marker of diabetes risk) and lost more weight than later eaters.

Making it work for you

It is not practical for many of us to eat our largest meal in the morning, so how can you optimise your health without too much disruption?

  • Do not skip breakfast. This does not mean you have to eat as soon as you get up, but try to eat the majority of your calories during the morning and afternoon.
  • Aim to eat dinner earlier in the evening. Avoid sitting down at 10pm to eat. Instead, if you are a late eater, start by moving your meal at least one hour earlier than usual, aiming to eat dinner no later than two to three hours before bed.
  • Lighten the load. Make dinner a meal that is chock full of vegetables rather than carbohydrates, and switch to eating most of your carbs (bread, pasta etc) to earlier in the day when you are more sensitive to insulin. You will still gain benefits even if you can only do this for four or five days a week.