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Meal Timing

Quinn Phillips

June 29, 2011

“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper,” is a saying attributed to 20th-century American nutrition activist Adelle Davis. Many people, of course, do not follow this advice to eat a large breakfast, a medium-large lunch, and a small dinner. It is commonplace in the United States for dinner to be the largest meal of the day, and some people see no problem in this. Others, however — including many researchers and people with diabetes — question whether timing meals this way produces the best health effects. This has led to some debate over whether a large dinner, or a late dinner, could be harmful to your health.

A recent article at Fox News Latino, written by a registered dietitian, claims that eating dinner later in the evening has not been shown to cause weight gain or to produce ill health effects. The author notes that in many Latin countries, as well as in Europe, it is routine to eat dinner at 9 PM. The problem with late dinners in the United States, he claims, is that they are often the main source of food for the day due to hectic schedules and failure to prioritize meals. Thus, people are often starved at dinnertime and overeat. As a guideline to prevent this, he suggests that people should consume 70% of their day’s calories before dinner, but they may eat the remaining 30% as late as they want, except within 90 minutes before bed.

A study published last year, however, somewhat contradicts the claim that meal timing makes no difference. Presented at Obesity 2010: The Obesity Society 28th Annual Scientific Meeting, the study found that eating a later dinner produced several metabolic effects. The participants were 10 healthy Japanese men with an average age of 40 and an average body-mass index (BMI) of 23. They were each monitored during two separate 23-hour periods in a respiratory chamber, allowing the body’s energy expenditure to be measured exactly. During each period, participants ate lunch at 1 PM and breakfast the next day at 8 AM (meals were identical for all participants). In between, they ate dinner at 7 PM during one period, and at 10 PM during the other.

According to a Medscape News article on the study, during the 23-hour period including the early dinner, participants averaged an expenditure of 1,885 calories; during the period including the late dinner, they averaged 1,837 calories burned. This difference could not be traced to any difference in physical activity, such as more motion during sleep after an early dinner. Insulin and blood glucose levels, as well as levels of free fatty acids in the blood, were higher after the late dinner than after the early one. Over time, these metabolic changes could result in weight gain and possibly a higher risk of diabetes and related conditions.

What do you think — do you time your meals in a particular way for health reasons? Do you believe that a big breakfast is beneficial? What about a light dinner, or an early one? Has your diabetes team recommended how you should spread calories throughout the day? Leave a comment below!



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