How timing your meals right can benefit your health
Eating well doesn’t necessarily just mean concentrating on the right diet – the time you eat (or don’t) can also make a big difference to your wellbeing
When did you last eat? Did you “breakfast like a king” as the saying goes, or skip it to hit a 14-hour fast? While “good” and “bad” foods have been ingrained in us from an early age, there’s more to eating than simply what’s on our plates. “Timing is a crucial factor,” says Jeannette Hyde, nutritional therapist and author of The 10 Hour Diet. “Looking at the optimum times to eat can help your weight, but also brings down inflammation and helps you sleep better.”
Intermittent fasting has rocketed in popularity over the years, from the 5:2 diet (where you eat normally for five days, and heavily restrict your calorie intake on the others) to aligning mealtimes with our circadian rhythms (the body’s internal clock) and time-restricted eating. It’s the latter Hyde has adopted, consuming food within a 10-hour time window and fasting for 14 hours overnight – “Some people will start at 8am and finish at 6pm, others start at 10am and finish at 8pm” – to improve her metabolism and gut health.
Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert, meanwhile, believes it’s more what you eat than when. “Your nutrition is so much more than a time schedule or a number [of meals],” she says. “The foods you choose to consume on a day-to-day basis will have a knock-on impact on your overall health.” A balanced plate, Lambert adds, should include a handful of carbs (rice, pasta, spelt, barley, for example), an outstretched handful of protein (chicken, salmon, pulses, tofu), two handfuls of veg (variety is good), and a thumb-sized portion of fat (olive oil for cooking), but how many meals you choose to eat, and their size, comes down to personal preference, lifestyle, and health goals. If, for example, someone had a body fat-loss goal and was more sedentary in the evening, Lambert suggests that a smaller portion at dinner than lunch would make sense.
What we do know, according to Dr Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, is that the current NHS guidelines that you should be eating small meals often throughout the day is “completely disproven” now. “In general, snacking is bad because it produces extra sugar and fat peaks, and therefore leads to sugar dips and more hunger, so you’ll eat more at the next meal.” That said, a ZOE Health study, which asked a million people about their snacking habits, found snacking affected those on a good-quality diet less than those on a poor-quality diet.
Snacking can, however, be useful for some, says nutritionist Jenna Hope. “If we go for long periods without eating, we are much more likely to overeat, and that’s because blood sugar levels fall, so we feel like we’re far hungrier than we are.” This can lead to eating more rapidly, too, so being mindful and observing the senses can be an important tool. “No one is going to make any money from telling people to slow down and chew their food properly,” says Hyde. “But if you sit at a table, without your phone or the TV on, be present and chew each mouthful, enjoy it, think of the flavours and texture, you will be in tune with your body and start to recognise when you’re full.” It takes about 20 minutes for those hunger hormones to switch on, Hyde adds, so take your time and you “won’t have room for that KitKat afterwards”.
Then, consider the gap between your last bite and going to sleep. “You should stop eating around two hours before bed,” says Hope. If you don’t, the digestive tract is “working hard to metabolise your food and absorb nutrients rather than secreting and absorbing the sleep hormone, melatonin”. Varying lifestyles can, of course, make this difficult, something Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge, who lost 12 stone in five years, can relate to. “The kitchen is always the worst space because you’re surrounded by food, and you’re cooking at times when it’s been deemed lunch or dinner,” says Kerridge, who has restaurants in London, Manchester, and Marlow. “That’s part of the reason I got into a bad space in the first place, because you’re eating filling, naughty things late at night.”
If you’re getting home late, and therefore don’t have that two-hour window before bed, Hope suggests a smaller, lighter dinner, such as an omelette or bean-based soup. Kerridge adds: “For me, it’s about trying to get a grip on the food I eat, rather than the time I eat it. You’ve got to look at it as a lifestyle choice that’s sustainable, rather than it being an instant return.”