When you eat, your calories may help with weight loss, new research suggests

When you eat, your calories may help with weight loss, new research suggests

Calories have long been assumed to be calories, and when it comes to weight loss, it doesn’t matter when they are consumed during the day.

Recent studies, however, have challenged this notion, suggesting that the timing of caloric intake — and how you distribute your calories throughout the day — may influence weight loss effectiveness.

These findings imply that mealtimes that don’t align with your body’s circadian rhythm — the 24-hour cycle that governs calorie burning, digestion, nutrient metabolism, and other bodily processes — may contribute to weight gain far beyond the number of calories you consume each day. .

Now two rigorously controlled trials, both published this month in the journal Cell Metabolism, support the theory that the right timing and distribution of daily calories can provide benefits for weight loss.

Here’s what to know about the latest research and how the results might apply to you.

A larger breakfast reduces hunger

A study, conducted by researchers at the University of Aberdeen in the UK, looked at whether eating a bigger breakfast and having a smaller dinner – or the other way around – led to greater weight loss.

Thirty overweight or obese participants were assigned to one of two diets: half ate most of their daily calories (45%) at breakfast, less at lunch (35%), and the least at dinner ( 20%). The other group ate 20% of daily calories at breakfast, 35% at lunch, and 45% at dinner.

After four weeks, the groups switched and followed the opposite diet.

Calories (1,700 per day), diet composition (eg, protein, carbohydrate, fat), and meal frequency were matched for the two diets; the only difference was the caloric load at breakfast or dinner.

The researchers provided all food and drink. Participants’ daily energy expenditure, resting metabolism, appetite, and weight loss were measured throughout the study.

Both diets resulted in nearly identical weight loss after four weeks (seven pounds). There was also no difference in daily calorie burn or resting metabolism between the two groups.

Calorie distribution did affect appetite control. Eating a larger breakfast resulted in a significant decrease in hunger and greater satiety during the day compared to a larger dinner.

These results contradict previous studies that suggested eating a big breakfast and a light dinner helps people burn more calories.

Instead, they imply that eating the largest meal of the day in the morning may contribute to weight loss over time by decreasing appetite and, therefore, calorie intake.

Eating late increases hunger, reduces calorie burning

Previous research has shown that eating late in the day is linked to an increased risk of obesity and reduced weight loss, findings that cannot be explained by differences in calorie intake or physical activity.

For the second study, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston set out to determine how eating late might influence the risk of obesity.

The lab experiment had 16 healthy adults who were overweight or obese follow two six-day dietary protocols: an early feeding protocol with meals at 8:00 a.m., noon, and 4:00 p.m. late feeding with exactly the same scheduled meals at noon, 4 a.m. a.m. and 8 p.m.

Physical activity, posture, sleep, and light exposure were tightly controlled.

The researchers measured perceived hunger and appetite, levels of appetite-regulating hormones, and calorie burn. They also looked at gene activity in adipose tissue.

Late eaters were twice as likely to report being hungry during the day as early eaters. Levels of leptin, a hormone that signals satiety, decreased during the late feeding protocol compared to the early feeding protocol.

When participants ate later, they also burned, on average, 60 fewer calories per day than when they ate earlier. In late eaters, gene activity in adipose tissue showed changes indicating increased fat storage and decreased fat burning.

The researchers noted that the increased tendency to eat seen with late meals may be even more pronounced in a real-world setting where people can eat as much and as often as they want.

Limits, implications

Both studies were small and of short duration. It is not known, for example, whether the observed effects of late feeding would persist over time.

And it remains to be shown whether reduced appetite associated with a larger breakfast translates into lower calorie intake, or whether this effect depends on the timing of the evening meal.

Still, these discoveries are intriguing and might make you want to skip breakfast and/or have a late dinner.

If you do time-restricted meals, they may prompt you to move your meal window from evening to morning or afternoon.

Leslie Beck, a dietitian in private practice in Toronto, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD


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