Written by Judith Scharman Draughon MS, RDN, LD (aka Judes)
Bio and contact information at the end of the article.
Forward from Patty: This article from my lifelong friend Judith Scharman Draughon came at a perfect time because the topic of when to eat and how it effects your sleep, diet, and exercise success has been very much on my mind. If you've hit a plateau in your workout or weight loss recently, this article may help you better understand how to pay better attention to WHEN you eat (and not just WHAT you eat.) Judes, you're a genius. Thank you so much for providing us with this relevant information.
Does it really matter when you eat your food?
So much nutritional information is bombarding us that the most transparent, most accessible path to effective, sustainable health-promoting weight loss is being buried. Yet with newer scientific research, there is enough concrete information to make a solid stand on when to eat your food to lose excess fat weight effectively while improving your health and productivity!
Eat According To Your Circadian Clock
You have a daily rhythm clock set in your brain along with corresponding clocks in your body. This circadian rhythm clock, in your brain, is trained by light and darkness. Light starts metabolic, physiological, and behavioral programs that are set on a 24-hour cycle.
Eating food in the morning is in sync with these programs that begin when you wake up and continues during the day. In the morning, the insulin in your body is most effective at doing its job of moving glucose (blood sugar) out of the blood and into the cells where it can be used for energy. Insulin becomes less effective and more resistant to shuttling blood sugar as the day progresses and is the least effective at night.
Consuming food at night is in conflict with nighttime pathways that encourage sleep rather than eating. Some of your body’s hormones are active at night, such as melatonin and growth hormone, that interfere with insulin’s action to move glucose out of your blood.
If you eat ice cream at night, for instance, melatonin actually blocks some of the action of your insulin so that sugar from the ice cream stays in your blood for a longer period of time. Higher blood sugar levels mean more insulin is produced to do the job, but more insulin tends to put you in fat making mode. Yikes!
Weight Loss: Timing Versus Calories
There is research to demonstrate that calories eaten later in the day promote weight gain. Harvard professor Dr. Scheer reported in the International Journal of Obesity that dieters who ate their main meal before 3:00 p.m. lost significantly more weight than did those who ate later in the day. This study showed that if you eat at least two-thirds of your calories before dinner, you’ll consume fewer calories over the whole day compared with people who eat most of their calories at night.
The time when you eat appears to be more important than consuming overall total calories in a day. In another study published in the same journal, two groups ate the same number of calories; overweight women who ate a big breakfast (seven hundred calories) and a light dinner (two hundred calories) lost more than twice as much weight as did women who ate two-hundred- calorie breakfasts and seven-hundred-calorie dinners. While night owls may consume more calories, they also may fail to burn more calories than those who go to sleep earlier.
Burn More Fat While You Sleep
Our bodies readily use carbohydrates for fuel, and the sooner in the evening that they use up the carbs for energy, the sooner your body starts burning body fat while we’re sleeping. When you time most of your eating to occur earlier in the day, you stand a better chance of losing fat weight rather than gaining weight.
Dr. Satchidananda Panda, associate professor at the Regulatory Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, found that you burn more stored body fat during the night while you sleep if your body doesn’t have as much food to use as fuel late at night. Try to stop eating earlier in the evening so that you can go for about twelve hours without eating overnight. If you tend to eat breakfast around 7:00 AM, avoid eating after 7:00 in the evening.
Overnight Fasting With Breakfast
Don’t be tempted to skip eating breakfast in the morning when your body metabolizes carbohydrates most effectively. Be sure to break your overnight fast! Then, stop consuming carbohydrates early in the evening when your body is more insulin resistant.
Intermittent fasting has been a hot topic lately, But looking closely at the research, especially in human studies, prolonged fasting for 16 hours paired with skipping breakfast is not only unnecessary but counterproductive. Interestedly enough, the participants of human studies who undertake prolonged fasting achieved positive weight loss results with 11 - 12 hours of fasting that included fasting overnight, not necessarily 16 hours as often touted.
Valter Longo, Ph.D., director of the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California and researcher in this area, is a proponent of overnight fasting with your natural circadian clock. He warns, however, that overnight fasting for more than 12 hours is problematic and that skipping breakfast and extending your fast for more than 12 to 14 hours could increase your risk of disease and prevent you from losing as much weight.
Continuing your nightly fast through the morning and skipping breakfast not only encourages weight gain but according to the research may even increase the risk of some chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. If you need to extend your fast beyond 12 hours, begin fasting earlier in the evening rather than skip breakfast.
Overnight “Fasting”: Benefits Beyond Weight Loss
12 hours of overnight fasting followed by a healthy breakfast in humans was associated with improved blood sugar (glucose) control and lower levels of inflammation. One particular study that followed more than 3,000 breast cancer survivors who underwent a nightly fast of fewer than 13 hours showed lower cancer reoccurrence, better glycemic control, and even improve sleep.
Breakfast Brain Benefits
Who doesn’t want to be able to think better? Few realize that eating breakfast helps you be more alert and concentrate better. Research studies show that eating breakfast can improve your ability to think, enhance your memory, and boost your attention span. Blood sugar levels have an effect on your brain. Your blood sugar level is low first thing in the morning after not eating for eight to 12 hours. Low blood sugar results in a lack of concentration, energy, and alertness. When a person’s blood glucose is low, they’ll feel lethargic, irritable, drowsy, restless and have difficulty thinking or recalling information.
Eat your breakfast for improved, stable blood sugar levels. Include protein in your breakfast, along with whole grains and fruit in their entire fruit form, to help you stay focused by keeping your blood sugar levels stable. Eating enough protein in the morning also helps you stay full and prevent cravings for less healthy foods. Being hungry or craving food certainly can be a distraction and divert your attention and productivity.
Eating at least 30 grams of protein in the morning may sharpen your brain and help you eat less in the evening, according to Dr. Heather Leidy, Assistant Professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Missouri. Her research using brain scanning techniques found that a high-protein breakfast positively impacts different parts of the brain compared to a low-protein breakfast. She and her research team also found that brain function (memory, attention, and executive function) is stimulated by a high-protein breakfast.
If you want to think better and be more productive, don’t skip breakfast! Be sure to include healthy protein like eggs, nuts, low-sugar Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, plus whole grains, whole fruit, and vegetables every morning.
Breakfast is the New Dinner Work with your body, not against it. Eat food during the day to match your light and dark circadian cycles. Don’t be tempted to eat breakfast later in the morning in order to space eating between the evening and breakfast to meet the 12 hours suggestion. It is important to eat breakfast relatively soon after you wake up to coordinate with your circadian rhythm when your body handles food well. Day, rather than evening, is when you need the fuel to be the most productive and active. At night you tend to be more sedentary with less need for energy.
If you have to eat in the evening after a light dinner, opt for a small amount of food that is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates (especially refined sugar and flour), such as nuts. Our bodies readily use carbs for fuel, and the sooner in the evening that they use up the carbs for energy, the sooner they go into fat-burning mode while we’re sleeping. When you time most of your eating to happen earlier in the day, you stand a better chance of losing fat weight rather than gaining fat weight.
So yes, it does matter when you eat and drink! Eating in the morning and throughout the day, in sync with your internal circadian clock. You metabolize the carbohydrates in your food better when you wake up rather than at night when your sleep hormones kick into gear to help you sleep, not eat. Eating “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” is good advice after all.
Front-load your eating is one of 12 "fixes" in Judes' book, Lean Body Smart Life. She has narrowed down the 12 most important "Fixes" you can do to make the biggest impact on your health, weight, and brain function.
Tello, Monique. "Intermittent Fasting: Surprising Update." Harvard Health Blog. June 26, 2018. Accessed April 10, 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/intermittent-fasting-surprising-update-2018062914156.
FNCE Session 2017 Washington D.C., Presented by Dorthy Sears, Ph.D. “The Evidence: Intermittent Fasting Effects on Cardiometabolic Disease and Cancer”
"Could Intermittent Fasting Be The Answer to Reducing Breast Cancer Recurrence Risk?" Dam. Mad. About Breast Cancer. October 11, 2018. Accessed April 11, 2019. (This is essentially a review of the 2017 FNCE Session presented by researcher Dr. Dorthy Sears I cited above.)
Eve Van Cauter, Kenneth S. Polonsky, André J. Scheen, Roles of Circadian Rhythmicity and Sleep in Human Glucose Regulation, Endocrine Reviews, Volume 18, Issue 5, 1 October 1997, Pages 716–738.
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Irina Uzhova, Valentín Fuster, Antonio Fernández-Ortiz, José M. Ordovás, Javier Sanz, Leticia Fernández-Friera, Beatriz López-Melgar, José M. Mendiguren, Borja Ibáñez, Héctor Bueno, José L. Peñalvo. The Importance of Breakfast in Atherosclerosis Disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 2017; 70 (15): 1833 DOI
Marinac CR, Nelson SH, Breen CI, et al. Prolonged Nightly Fasting and Breast Cancer Prognosis. JAMA Oncol.2016;2(8):1049–1055. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.0164
Leidy, Heather J., Laura C. Ortinau, Steve M. Douglas, and Heather A. Hoertel. “Beneficial effects of a higher- protein breakfast on the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signals controlling energy intake regulation in overweight/obese,“breakfast-skipping,” late-adolescent girls.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 97, no. 4 (2013): 677-688.
Gwin JA, Leidy HJ. “A Review of the Evidence Surrounding the Effects of Breakfast Consumption on Mechanisms of Weight Management.” Advances in Nutrition. 2018 Sep 10; 9(6): 717-725.
Judes is a registered, licensed dietitian nutritionist, the author of the book, Lean Body Smart Life, and the 12-Fix Lean Life Plan. She inspires many groups, organizations, and business with her high-energy nutrition presentations, workshops, and seminars. She narrows down the science to the most effective ways to improve one’s health and weight for life and has been dubbed the "How-To-Dietitian" as she shows how to prepare deliciously health-promoting foods while juggling busy lives. She is the owner of Nutrition Educational Solutions, but the world knows her as “Foods With Judes.” Judes was the Corporate Wellness RDN at Total Customized Fitness, taught at the International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute, and held various other positions as a dietitian through the years. She is the mother of four adult children and resides in North Carolina with her husband.
Judes is passionate about her quest to empower people to make small changes that make a big difference.
She can’t wait to empower you!