For the past decade, health professionals and weight-loss enthusiasts alike have been harping on a big breakfast as the most important meal of the day. Long gone is the notion that dinner should be the heaviest meal and now we are shoving in our calories earlier, hoping to sustain our energy, insulin levels and slim waistlines. But are we doing it all in vain? Here is a breakdown of what your body needs from your diet and when.
The Case for a Big Breakfast
You've heard it time and time again, but is it true? Is breakfast the most important meal of the day?
In a study published by the journal Obesity, Tel Aviv researches followed 93 overweight and obese women over a 3-month period. These women were in their mid-40s and had metabolic syndrome. They were put on a 1,400-calorie-per-day diet and split into two groups – breakfast group and dinner group. The breakfast group ate 50 percent of their 1,400 daily calories at breakfast, 36 percent at lunch and 14 percent at dinner. The dinner group ate the percentage of their calories in ascending order, 14 percent at breakfast, 36 percent at lunch and 50 percent at dinner.
At the end of the study, the results were clear: The big breakfast group participants lost 19.1 pounds on average, while the dinner group lost 7.9 pounds. The breakfast group lost 3.3 inches from their waistlines, while the dinner group lost 1.5 inches. BMI dropped 10 percent among the breakfast group participants and 5 percent among the dinner group participants. While LDL (bad) cholesterol declined among those in both groups, only HDL (good) cholesterol increased among those in the breakfast group. Triglyceride levels plummeted 34 percent in the breakfast group and 15 percent in the dinner group. The breakfast group also had lower glucose and insulin responses after lunch.
The study seems to draw both a weight loss and a health conclusion. The conclusion: those who consume most of their calories at breakfast will lose more weight and be healthier because of it.
Not so fast.
The Case Against a Big Breakfast
The first red flag in this study is that all of the participants were either overweight or obese – not necessarily a case study whose results apply to everyone. Meanwhile, the calorie is treated homogeneously across the board, when no two calories are alike. Would you compare a fudge cake calorie as equal to that in an apple? The content of participants’ diets were not regulated, so it is uncertain who ate what and when.
The content of these diets are important to consider, because they may make the case concerning weight loss and improved cardiovascular health and blood sugar responses better compared to the timing in which calories were consumed. For example, the breakfast group participants may have been less inclined to consume the majority of their calories in refined sugars and flours, especially knowing they were put on a strict diet and when morning motivation is high. As the day goes on, breakfast group participants cannot indulge so heavily in candy or junk food, knowing that they would be violating the terms of the study and calorie appropriation. Meanwhile, the dinner group may start the day off on a healthier food, eating fruit or other low-calorie items. However, as the day goes on, they have become increasingly ravenous and looking forward to their “big” dinner. At this point, knowing they can indulge in the evening and with their guts guiding their choices (versus that fresh-out-of-bed motivation among morning group participants), dinner group subjects may choose denser, less healthy food items.
But, again, the study did not detail the quality of the foods consumed by participants. And, quality matters.
These nuances are extremely important to consider.
The Case for a Big Dinner
This brings us to switching the courses of the day and focusing on a bigger dinner. Is doing so better? Worse?
There are many theories that honor a heavier evening dinner. For one, tradition. Around the world, dinner is more often times than not regarded as the most important meal of the day – it is as much a social event as it is a nourishing one - and is celebrated ceremoniously around a table with family. In the United States, dinner has customarily been the biggest meal of the day.
An offshoot practice among “detox” lifestyle enthusiasts is the light-to-heavy concept. In this concept, practitioners eat light-to-heavy, between meals and in meals. This pays respect to the digestive system, arguing that dense foods should follower lighter foods in order for the body to metabolize consumed goods more efficiently. Salad greens, for example, are considered “roughage” and help to prepare the digestive tract for heavier, denser items that follow. Imagine consuming macaroni and cheese, which is quite dense, and then a salad afterwards. As the pasta dish digests, the salad is stalled behind it and as it begins to ferment, it can cause gas. This causes a traffic jam of sorts. The same applies in between meals. A heavy breakfast may not have enough time to digest properly before lunch is consumed, causing a collision in the gut and more work than you digestive system would prefer to handle. By the time dinner comes around, you’re just adding more to the bloat and discomfort.
And while this theory sounds practical and intuitive, what about the proof? Trial and error is the best test for those curious in the light-to-heavy practice.
Another case for eating a larger dinner is supported by your body’s very own biology. According to biologists, the human nervous system is designed for night eating. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) regulates day activities and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), night activities. The SNS helps you through the day by keeping you energized and focused whilst burning fat. That is why we work and exercise best during the day. However, the SNS is not equipped to handle large meals. When you do so, the SNS shuts down and activated the PSNS, which makes you sluggish and sleepy. Ever get super tired after a big lunch? You may have kicked in your nighttime nervous system – the PSNS.
The Case Against a Big Dinner
The case against a big dinner is reiterated in the study outlined in the case for a big breakfast section above.
There are a lot of conversations surrounding whether the metabolism slows at night while you sleep, and if going to bed with a full stomach will only make you gain weight. The truth is, the metabolism never stops working but it does slow down at night, just like all of your bodily processes – you’re sleeping, no less! If you eat up until minutes before you hit the hay, you are setting yourself up for an uncomfortable sleep and an inefficient digestive system.
The trick is to not consume anything but water and herbal teas in the 3 hours before you go to bed. This metabolism-slowing-down-while-you-sleep argument is only a case against a bigger dinner if you eat your last meal at the end of the day. Keep it before 9 if you plan to go to bed at 12.
Why go against your body’s natural biological processes? Your body is designed to eat a larger meal at night, but studies aside, that is a conditional statement. Firstly, what works for one person may not work for another, depending on the starting point in their diets and the differing lifestyles they lead. Additionally, before you think about when you should be eating your largest meal in the day, your focus should be on what to eat in any given day. Focus on quality first and then move onto the issue of timing. You may find that your body reacts more in tune with nature’s recommendations when you eat a plant-based diet versus a sugar, meat and dairy-heavy diet.
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Photo Credit: Joits