You Want Me to Eat When?
Nutrition: Why meal timing and frequency are important to helping your clients successfully lose weight.
Weight loss can be tricky. You see clients day after day, working their hearts out without achieving any significant results. You know that their exercise program is making them stronger and healthier, but they are disappointed to see no change when they weigh themselves.
If your clients are exercising and adhering to a lean and healthy diet, one thing you might want to ask them about is the timing and frequency of their daily meals. While what we eat is the most crucial component in any healthy food plan, proper meal timing is also something to consider.
Meal timing is a significant element in any successful weight loss program. Eating small, healthy meals frequently throughout the day is not only important for controlling appetite and cravings; it is also essential for maintaining healthy blood glucose, insulin and cholesterol levels.
Making time for meals can be difficult for busy clients. Here are some of the most common barriers that people face throughout their hectic days, along with suggestions on how to overcome those hurdles.
When people start to skip meals, breakfast is often the first to go. Many clients mistakenly believe that going without breakfast shaves off a meal’s worth of calories from their total daily intake. While this may seem logical to some, the truth is that those lost breakfast calories will likely be compensated for and ultimately eaten later in the day.
Research findings confirm that skipping breakfast is counterproductive to weight loss. Researchers compared study participants who ate breakfast at 8:00 am with those who waited until 10:30 am (Farshchi, Taylor & Macdonald 2005b). Participants who ate later (i.e., “skipped breakfast”) had higher fasting LDL cholesterol levels and decreased insulin sensitivity. In addition, they had higher total caloric intake during the study period.
According to the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR)—the largest prospective research project on long-term successful weight loss and maintenance—78% of the people polled who lost weight (and kept it off) reported eating breakfast every day (NWCR 2009).
It may sound like a cliché, but breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Not only does it start the day off right by controlling insulin levels, but it helps control appetite and cravings as the day goes on.
Another common mistake is eating too much food late in the day. When clients skip meals in the morning and/or afternoon, they are ravenous when they get home. No matter how great their willpower is or how many healthy foods they have stocked in the pantry, overeating is often inevitable. Eating three small, balanced meals and two healthy snacks and staggering eating times throughout the day will help satisfy cravings, maintain blood sugar levels, control hunger and meet nutrient needs.
Although everyone’s schedule is different, I advise my clients to eat within an hour of waking and every 3–4 hours thereafter. This practice takes the “drama” out of eating by removing the emotional element. It helps clients make more rational decisions and choose foods that will allow them to reach their weight goals.
Research shows that staggering meals during the day helps curb cravings. In one study, two groups were given the same breakfast, but one ate the meal in a single sitting, while the other group spread the food out over a 5-hour period, eating small portions every hour (Speechly & Buffenstein 1999). Both groups were then asked to eat any lunch of their choosing. The group that ate breakfast in one sitting reported wanting to eat less at lunch, showed a weaker urge to eat and had lower hunger ratings. However, once they sat down to eat lunch, those same participants ended eating twice as much food as participants who spread their breakfast out over time. These results seem to confirm that eating one big meal instead of several smaller meals throughout the day can ultimately result in a higher daily caloric intake.
Another pitfall that people face is not having a daily food plan—and yet, studies continue to underscore the importance of meal planning.
Investigators studied two demographics: healthy lean women and healthy obese women (Farschi, Taylor & Macdonald 2004 and 2005a). Each demographic was broken into two groups, one that ate 6 meals a day on a regular schedule and one that ate irregularly scheduled meals (three to nine meals daily) over a 2-week period. A “meal” was defined as a food or snack (liquid or solid) containing energy, with an interval of more than 1 hour between eating occasions. Regardless of whether they were lean or obese, the women who ate on an irregular basis had higher LDL cholesterol levels, decreased insulin sensitivity, decreased energy expenditure and an impaired thermic effect of food (i.e., how much energy the body uses to digest food) compared with the irregular eaters.
Clearly, the body appreciates routine, from both a physiological and an emotional perspective. When meals are planned, timed and consistent throughout the day, clients stand a better shot at losing weight and keeping it off.
Next time someone complains about not being able to lose weight, ask about meal timing and daily eating practices. You will be amazed at how often clients skip breakfast, eat small lunches or none at all, and then overeat at dinner. Share some of the strategies shown in the sidebar (“How to Create a Successful Meal Plan”) to improve clients’ meal planning throughout the day.
It may take some tweaking, as no two schedules are exactly alike, but over time eating small, balanced meals throughout the day will not only get your clients feeling better; it also helps them see results on the scale. Weight loss doesn’t have to be so tricky!
Here is an exercise that your clients can use to design a successful weight loss meal plan tailored to their personal schedule and lifestyle. This exercise is designed to get clients thinking about when they currently eat and how they can improve their diet through meal planning.
Writing down their current routine will give clients the real-world data needed to create a new meal plan that they can maintain over time. This exercise will require two pieces of paper, one to record current daily practices and one to schedule new mealtimes that are practical for the clients and suit their personal needs.
1. Think about your typical week. Do you have a weekly routine or a different schedule each day? Do your wake-up times, workouts, work schedule or family schedule vary?
2. Using the first piece of paper, record the times you wake up each day and the times you go to bed each night.
3. Now record what you typically eat each day and when you usually have your meals.
4. Note how long you usually go between meals. Notice the time(s) of day when you tend to go too long between meals, and think through what is causing the delays. Are you stuck in traffic each day at a certain time? Are you in back-to-back meetings? Are you waiting for your spouse so you two can sit down to eat together? Are you tired before lunch? Now consider which of these reasons are flexible and which cannot be changed.
5. Use a new piece of paper to start making your new meal plan. Starting with your usual wake-up time, schedule your first meal of the day for 1 hour later and then slot in subsequent meals or snacks every 3–4 hours thereafter. For example, if you wake up each day at 6:00 am, your meal times will be 7:00 am, 10:00 am, 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm. These times will vary depending on when you start and end your day.
6. If you do not go to bed until midnight and you eat dinner at 7:00 pm, then it is reasonable to grab a light, healthy snack at 9:00 pm. But stick to nighttime snacks that balance carbohydrate with protein (e.g., yogurt and fruit or a slice of whole-grain bread with a smear of peanut butter).
7. After assessing your typical daily routine and your new meal plan, take some time to consider if the revised schedule will really work for you. Maybe your job will not allow you to take your lunch hour at 1:00 pm or you cannot eat at 7:00 pm because your kids are always clamoring for an early dinner. Please keep in mind that this meal plan is just a starting point and can be improved upon as you put it into practice.
Remember, the goal is to create a plan that makes sense for each individual. Eating 4–6 small meals every 3–4 hours may not be possible or even beneficial for everyone. Strategize using your real- life commitments, and make the plan work for you! That is the key.
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Farshchi, H.R., Taylor, M.A., & Macdonald, I.A. 2005a. Beneficial metabolic effects of regular meal frequency on dietary thermogenesis, insulin sensitivity, and fasting lipid profiles in healthy obese women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81, 16–24.
Farshchi, H.R., Taylor, M.A., & Macdonald, I.A. 2005b. Deleterious effects of omitting breakfast on insulin sensitivity and fasting lipid profiles in healthy lean women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81, 388–96.
National Weight Loss Registry (NWLR). 2009. NWCR facts. www.nwcr.ws/research/default.htm; retrieved Dec. 2009.
Speechly, D.P., & Buffenstein, R. 1999. Greater appetite control associated with an increased frequency of eating in lean males. Appetite, 33 (3), 285–97.
© 2010 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
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