Diet

The best time to eat if you want to lose weight

Eat on this schedule to maximize fat burning, avoid hormonal interference and keep hunger at bay.

Woman eating cereal and coffee for breakfast

Photo, Getty Images.

We’ve all been there — the to-do list piles up during the day and, before you know it, it’s almost time for bed and you’re standing in front of the fridge, having barely eaten anything all day. Your appetite catches up to you, with a vengeance. To avoid the pitfalls of under- and over-eating, use these tips to keep blood sugar stable and hunger under control:

1. Stay fuller, longer
Increasing your meal frequency has a positive impact on your body composition — the caveat being that the meals must be smaller in size. By eating smaller meals approximately every three hours, you’ll help maintain a steady level of blood sugar.

Bottom line: An increase in meal frequency has been found to lower overall body mass in men and have a positive impact on energy levels throughout the day in both genders. A 2008 study found that spreading out our food intake keeps us more full during the day and also sustains fat oxidation (the use of fat as fuel) at night. Eating more often is not only better, but the simple act has a favourable effect on lowering plasma cholesterol and raising the healthy to unhealthy cholesterol ratio.

2. Eat earlier in the day
A study published in the International Journal of Obesity, found that consuming meals earlier in the day was associated with faster, and more significant, weight loss. Scientists monitored the eating habits and weight loss success of 420 overweight Spanish participants on a 20-week diet program. Those who consumed about 40 percent of their daily calories (roughly 550 to 570) before 3 p.m. lost 22 pounds, compared to the later group who only lost 17 pounds. Those who ate after 3 p.m. also had lower insulin sensitivity, which is a risk factor for diabetes (and certainly weight gain in general).

Bottom line: Some people may prefer three larger meals and one snack, while others may like four equally-sized meals. You’re free to find the best combination that works for you. If you can lose an extra five pounds just by spreading out your meals it’s certainly worth it.

3. Stick to a schedule
A classic study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, manipulated dinner time for 22 obese and 24 healthy-weight individuals to determine whether eating behaviour changed when standard mealtimes were altered. They found that the obese group ate more when they thought they were eating after their regular dinner hour than they did when they thought that they were eating before.

Bottom line: Skipping a meal causes blood sugar imbalance and raises cortisol levels, which in turn has a host of negative consequences from increasing belly fat to disrupting insulin receptors. Be sure to eat around the same time each night to ensure your body knows when each meal is happening.

4. Start your day off right
There’s a reason I tell patients to eat within one hour of rising and never within the three-hour period before bedtime — it makes a significant difference in body composition. A 2005 study found evidence that people who skip breakfast compensate later in the day with more refined carbohydrates and fats and fewer fruits and vegetables. Skipping breakfast was also associated with significantly higher fasting total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, and impaired post-meal insulin sensitivity.

Bottom line: If you must eat before bed, opt for a light meal or snack that’s high in protein and low in carbohydrates and fat like plain yogurt, a protein shake made with berries and water, salad with grilled chicken, or shrimp and veggie stir-fry. Stick to eggs or whey protein shakes at breakfast and you’ll eat less throughout the day.

5. Remember to know your numbers
I don’t advocate counting calories, but you should try to avoid overeating in one sitting, which can cause stress on your body regardless of what time it’s at. Pay attention to my recommended serving sizes (measure by your hand/fist or by the number of grams of protein, carbs and fat). If you feel you need a specific number as a guideline, 500 calories in one meal is a reasonable amount to try to stick to, with half of that for snacks. A good rule of thumb is to stick to the parameters listed below. I use Calorie King or On Target Nutrition to make sure I’m in balance 90 percent of the time (with that final 10 percent left for my weekly cheat meal). I encourage you to do the same.

Women Men
Protein: 25–30 g Protein: 35–40 g
Fat: 9-12 g Fat: 12–15 g
Carbs: 20–30 g Carbs: 30–40 g

Natasha Turner, N.D., is a naturopathic doctor, Chatelaine magazine columnist and author of the bestselling books The Hormone Diet, The Supercharged Hormone Diet and The Carb Sensitivity Program. She’s also the founder of the Toronto-based Clear Medicine Wellness Boutique and a regular guest on The Dr. Oz Show and The Marilyn Denis Show. For more wellness advice from Natasha Turner, click here

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-Article originally published February 2013.