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When Should I Eat? 3 Nutrient-Timing Myths Busted

By John Berardi, Ph.D. ; Updated February 28, 2018

It's time to set the record straight: There's no "best time" to eat. And below is some other myth-busting information about nutrient timing, including the idea that there is a single, special eating schedule that everyone should follow.

Myth 1: You must eat breakfast.

Let's start with one of the most widely held myths of all: To lose weight or stay lean, everyone needs to eat breakfast.

For decades, we've been told "breakfast is the most important meal of the day." But it turns out that this argument has some significant holes. You've probably heard a lot of research supports eating breakfast. It's true: Many studies (like this one) associate breakfast with a host of benefits, including appetite suppression, decreased body weight, improved academic performance and better blood sugar control.

So no wonder we've been told not to skip breakfast! But here's what you haven't been told about these studies: Most of the evidence is observational. It suggests there's a correlation, but it doesn't prove cause.

In other words, there may be a relationship between people who eat breakfast in the morning and do well in school, but it doesn't mean they do well in school because they ate breakfast.

Some studies have accounted for this fact and evaluated cause and effect (not just correlation). In these studies, the results are mixed. So, in all the brouhaha about breakfast, here's the actual truth: Eating breakfast is a good thing. Sometimes. For some people. But not everyone.

Myth 2: Actually, you should skip breakfast.

As long as the pro-breakfast camp has been around, so has the anti-breakfast camp. You may have tried skipping breakfast yourself when dieting as a way to "save calories."

You may also have heard about some research suggesting that skipping breakfast can support weight loss or other health goals. In the mix of research, various benefits have been reported, including:

  • Increased fat breakdown
  • More production of growth hormone
  • Improved blood glucose control
  • Improved cardiovascular function
  • Decreased food intake

As with the pro-breakfast argument, no firm "rule" has been proven. Most of the above research has been done on animals, with only a few conclusive human studies.

What's more, the studies don't guarantee long-term benefits. They show short-term changes in physiology. But immediate changes like these can often be deceiving. Often the body "corrects" for them later — seeking homeostasis.

That's why short-term effects from nutrient-timing protocols don't always translate into long-term changes. So in the end, skipping breakfast is fine — but only if it works for you.

Myth 3: Eat lightly at night or eat lots at night.

For years, most nutrition experts told people to eat more of their calories and carbs at breakfast and to keep calories — and especially carbs — lower at night.

Then, all of a sudden, some new experts began recommending the opposite, telling us to eat the majority of our calories and carbohydrates at a dinnertime feast. Nowadays, this idea is associated with something called carb back-loading.

But neither are exactly right.The research is mixed. Some studies found breakfast to be the best time for big meals, some found no differences in weight loss between big breakfasts and big dinners and other research found significant benefits from eating more at night.

What can we discern from this contradictory mishmash of findings? It's simple: We're all unique. There's no one-size-fits-all rule. That's why anyone telling you that there's one perfect time to eat (and for that matter, one perfect diet plan or perfect detox) is wrong.

Figure Out What Eating Schedule Works for You

Unless you're an elite athlete and every bite you take is scripted by a coach, you don't have to let the "experts" tell you when to eat. Follow your own evidence. Track your experience. Do what works — measurably — for you.

If early sunshine and scrambled eggs gets you through the day feeling awesome, great. If a robust dinner is more your thing, enjoy drifting off to sleep with the warm fuzzy feeling of a full belly.

Just like when you exercise, what's most important is that you make high-quality choices, consistently, whenever it works for you.

5 Questions to Improve Your Eating Habits

If you want to improve your eating habits, rather than worrying about whether or not you should be timing your carb intake or if it's OK to eat past 7 p.m., think about these five factors (in order of priority):

  1. How much are you eating? Are you eating until you're just satisfied or uncomfortably stuffed?
  2. How are you eating? Are you eating slowly and mindfully or are you distracted and stressed?
  3. Why are you eating? Are you legitimately hungry or just driven by an emotional or social reason?
  4. What are you eating? What's your mix of minimally processed proteins, veggies, fruits, healthy starches and healthy fats?
  5. When are you eating? How is your current eating schedule working for you?

As you can see, nutrient timing makes the list, but it's at the bottom. Timing your nutrients can help, but only if you have the other, more important aspects of your eating in order first.

Even then, there are no hard-and-fast rules. It's all about the question: "How are my eating patterns working for me?" Then you can make adjustments that help you feel good, achieve your goals and generally live better.

The fact is, rather than adhering to sweeping generalizations, the smallest of changes can lead you to big results. So put aside the myths and rules and eat when works for you.

Want some help finding the best diet for you? Download this free guide: Paleo, vegan, intermittent fasting... Here's how to choose the best diet for you.

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