Written by Clean Health Research & Development Specialist, Stefan Ianev
In recent years, meal timing has largely been disregarded by many coaches, with it now being all about calories. Many coaches now simply give their clients a total daily caloric and macro target and send them off to My Fitness Pal to log their foods with no regard for how or when those calories or macros are consumed.
What the Research Says:
For the most part, the bulk of the research does support the premise that the total daily caloric intake is the most important factor for weight loss. However, some research also shows that certain individuals can lose more weight and have a greater improvement in metabolic markers such as blood glucose levels when they consume the bulk of their calories at certain times of the day.
When I first delved deep into the research on meal timing about 3-4 years ago, carb back- loading was all the rage, and I wanted to see if there was legitimate research to support those claims.
At that time, I found about 9 studies on the topic and they were split right down the middle:
- 4 studies showed a benefit to consuming more calories and carbohydrates earlier in the day
- 3 studies showed a benefit to consuming more calories and carbohydrates later in the day
- 2 studies showed no difference
What This Means for You
Basically, what I took away from that was that meal timing does seem to make a difference to some degree, even when consuming the same number of total calories for the day, but that everyone is different.
For a while this was something that really puzzled me because there was no real way of knowing if someone would respond best to having more carbs earlier or later in the day without some trial and error. However, more recent research has provided some insight into why some people might respond better to having more carbohydrates at certain times of the day.
It appears that this is related to an individual’s circadian timing or chronotype. For example, some people are naturally early birds or early chronotypes which means they have early onset of melatonin (around 7pm). Late chronotypes or night owls have late onset of melatonin (around 1am), while neither-types have melatonin onset around 10pm.
Apart from regulating the sleep-wake cycle, melatonin has been shown to impair glucose tolerance in about 50% of the population (1). In susceptible individuals, eating the bulk of calories later in the day, when melatonin is elevated, has been shown to increase the risk of obesity, dyslipidemia, hyperglycemia, inflammation, and metabolic syndrome (1-3).
This is why early birds will most likely do better on a carb front loading diet or early time restricted feeding where the majority of carbohydrates and daily calories are consumed earlier in the day, before 1pm, and the last meal of the day is before 7pm.
Several studies have shown that early time restricted feeding can aid weight loss, however this appears to be mostly mediated through reduced food intake (4,5). Additionally, other studies have shown that early time restricted feeding can improve insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and oxidative stress, and may also increase autophagy and have anti-aging effects in humans, irrespective or weight loss (6,7).
However, this feeding pattern is not suitable for everyone, particularly night owls or evening chronotypes, because in these individuals, elevated melatonin levels may persist for longer in the morning, which increases the metabolic risk due to decreased glucose tolerance (1).
These individuals may respond best to carb backloading or late time-restricted feeding as it’s more aligned with their circadian timing. Several studies have reported a modest improvement in fat loss when consuming the daily calories later in the day, even when consuming the same total calories (8,9). The researchers speculated that the change in body composition could be influenced by the effect that eating patterns have on metabolic activity.
However, in other studies, subjects who consumed their daily calories in the evening exhibited elevated fasting glucose levels, and impaired morning glucose tolerance which was associated with a delayed insulin response (10). Therefore, just like with early time restricted feeding, this feeding pattern is not appropriate for everyone.
For neither-types, the research seems to suggest that the optimal feeding pattern is to have breakfast within 2hrs of waking up, lunch before 3pm, and dinner no later than 2hrs before bedtime. One study showed that ideally up to 50% of the total daily calories should be consumed at least 8hrs before the onset of melatonin, to optimize the circadian timing of food intake (11).
The good news is that we are now starting to understand more about why some people respond best to eating the bulk of their calories earlier in the day while others do not. And even better, you do not need any expensive or complicated testing to find out. Everyone already knows if they are an early bird, a night owl, or neither-type.
- Lopez-Minguez J, Gómez-Abellán P, Garaulet M. Timing of Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. Effects on Obesity and Metabolic Risk. Nutrients. 2019;11(11):2624. Published 2019 Nov 1. doi:10.3390/nu11112624
- Nas A, et al. Impact of breakfast skipping compared with dinner skipping on regulation of energy balance and metabolic risk, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 105, Issue 6, June 2017, Pages 1351–1361, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.116.151332
- Varady KA. Meal frequency and timing: impact on metabolic disease risk. Curr Opin Endocrinol Diabetes Obes. 2016 Oct;23(5):379-83. doi: 10.1097/MED.0000000000000280.
- LeCheminant JD, Christenson E, Bailey BW, Tucker LA. Restricting night-time eating reduces daily energy intake in healthy young men: a short-term cross-over study. Br J Nutr. 2013;110(11):2108‐2113. doi:10.1017/S0007114513001359
- Ravussin E, Beyl RA, Poggiogalle E, Hsia DS, Peterson CM. Early Time-Restricted Feeding Reduces Appetite and Increases Fat Oxidation But Does Not Affect Energy Expenditure in Humans. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2019;27(8):1244‐1254. doi:10.1002/oby.22518
- Sutton EF, Beyl R, Early KS, et al. Early Time-Restricted Feeding Improves Insulin Sensitivity, Blood Pressure, and Oxidative Stress Even without Weight Loss in Men with Prediabetes. Cell Metabolism. 2018 Jun;27(6):1212-1221.e3. DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2018.04.010.
- Jamshed H, Beyl RA, Della Manna DL, Yang ES, Ravussin E, Peterson CM. Early Time-Restricted Feeding Improves 24-Hour Glucose Levels and Affects Markers of the Circadian Clock, Aging, and Autophagy in Humans. Nutrients. 2019;11(6):1234. Published 2019 May 30. doi:10.3390/nu11061234
- Moro T, Tinsley G, Bianco A, et al. Effects of eight weeks of time-restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation, and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance-trained males. Journal of Translational Medicine. 2016;14:290. doi:10.1186/s12967-016-1044-0.
- Stote KS, Baer DJ, Spears K, et al. A controlled trial of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction in healthy, normal-weight, middle-aged adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85(4):981‐988. doi:10.1093/ajcn/85.4.981
- Carlson O, Martin B, Stote KS, et al. Impact of reduced meal frequency without caloric restriction on glucose regulation in healthy, normal-weight middle-aged men and women. Metabolism. 2007;56(12):1729‐1734. doi:10.1016/j.metabol.2007.07.018
- McHill AW, Phillips AJ, Czeisler CA, et al. Later circadian timing of food intake is associated with increased body fat. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017;106(5):1213–1219. doi:10.3945/ajcn.117.161588
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