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Timing is important in your diet

August 23, 1997|By Jeanne Rhodes

Is it better to eat dinner at 5:30 or 9 p.m.? Or does it matter at all? Yes, it does matter if good health and weight loss are your goals.

Even if you want to discourage weight gain, you are better off to eat most of your calories in the morning rather than late afternoon or night.

Studies show that our biological clocks - "circadian rhythms" are set to store more calories in the evening for two reasons:

1. Metabolic rate begins to decline in late afternoon, reaching its lowest caloric burning point during the evening - a slowing down that prepares us for sleep.


2. A lower calorie burning rate helps us store calories more efficiently for the coming fast - sleep.

A study at University of Minnesota demonstrated that the calories we eat before midafternoon are more likely to be spent on energy, while those eaten later produce more fat.

In this study, a group of people ate only one meal a day each day for two weeks. The meal consisted of 2,000 calories. During the first week, it was eaten at breakfast. All of the participants lost weight. The second week the 2,000-calorie meal was eaten at dinner and the same participants gained weight.

French researchers who noticed that night workers gained weight on the same amount of food eaten by day workers, did a study to determine if there was a change in metabolic rates (calorie burning) that varied by the time of day.

These researchers had subjects eat the same meal during the morning, and again at night. They measured the rate at which the subjects burned calories at each feeding. They found that the later they ate, the lower the burn-off and the higher the calorie-storing rate, which turned into weight gain. Specifically, the subjects burned 45 percent more calories at breakfast than at the evening meal.

The message is clear - the body's biological clock is set so that calories seem to count for more later in the day and evening. This seems to correlate with the increase in weight problems as we have historically moved from an agricultural to a predominantly industrial country.

As an agricultural population, breakfast and midday meals were the largest followed by a smaller "snack-type" meal in the evening. Today, that healthier eating schedule is typically reversed, and may be a contributing factor in the increase in weight and health problems.

Nighttime is usually the only unstructured part of our day, and the prospect of having a few liberated hours to munch at night is very enticing. In addition, we do not usually plan for breakfast and lunch.

Having only brief periods in our day to eat, we often skip these meals totally or have a token amount of the quickest food we can grab for these important meals and end up playing "catch-up" at dinner - the largest fat-producing meal of the day.

It's not difficult to change these habits. These meals can be very convenient, but it does take a little planning. The good news is that having a good breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack brings you to dinner with a much smaller appetite, so you will automatically eat less without feeling deprived.

So if you're worried about your health or weight, plan to eat more of your calories at breakfast and lunch. This will help you avoid heavy meals at night.

Jeanne Rhodes is a nutritionist, wellness consultant and director of Rhodes Preventive Health Institute in Hagerstown.

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