Keeping track of what you’re supposed to eat to stay healthy can already be overwhelming, but it turns out that when you eat what can also be important for keeping your weight in control and for warding off chronic disease.
According to recent data, sales for breakfast items are passing those for lunch and dinner and plenty of restaurants are now offering breakfast fare all day long. Basically, eating the morning meal has never been easier. It also turns out that Mom was right: you should eat breakfast. And if you don’t believe Mom, a growing body of studies shows that a good meal in the morning can help your body prepare for the day to come, and lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. But what about the rest of the day’s meals? Here’s what nutrition experts say about the best times to eat and why.
Don’t skip breakfast. Reporting in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, Harvard School of Public Health researchers studied the health outcomes of 26,902 male health professionals ages 45 to 82 over a 16-year period. They discovered that the men who skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of heart attack or death from heart disease than those who honored the morning meal. According to the scientists, skipping breakfast may make you hungrier and more likely to eat larger meals, which leads to a surge in blood sugar. Such spikes can pave the way for diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, all risk factors that can snowball into a heart attack.
Pass on the pastry. Eating in the morning — and what you eat — is important for setting your blood-sugar pattern for the rest of the day. “If you eat something that is whole grain and has some fat and protein to it, your blood sugar is going to rise slowly and go down slowly. If you eat something refined, like an overly sweet cinnamon roll, that’s the worst thing you can eat,” says Judy Caplan, a registered dietitian nutritionist for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You get an insulin [spike], and [then] your blood sugar drops too low so you get hungry again. That’s why people get into a cycle of overeating junk.”
To ease your body into a more consistent blood-sugar pattern, try some oatmeal, whole-wheat toast with almond butter, or an omelette with spinach and avocado. If you really want to have some toast, experts tell TIME that you should look for breads that include “sprouted” or “stoneground” grains and that list whole grains as one of the first items in an ingredients label. The kernels can make the bread more dense and hearty.
Caplan’s favorite breakfast is a baked sweet potato with a little bit of cinnamon and a small bit of butter. Who says you have to eat just cereal in the morning?
Fuel up at the right time. In the 1960s, nutritionist Adelle Davis popularized the mantra “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” Why? Fueling up makes sense earlier in the day, when your body needs the most calories for energy. That’s why in many European countries, the largest meal of the day occurs in the afternoon. “Ideally, you want to give yourself fuel before you do harder labor,” says Caplan.
If you’re used to eating a smaller meal for lunch and a larger meal later, you can still fill up with a hearty meal that has significantly fewer calories. “A fairly large meal [that] is full of salad and vegetables [is] big in volume but light in calories,” says Caplan.
Don’t overdo it. Calories get burned up no matter when you eat them, so theoretically it’s O.K. to eat after dark. But if you eat a heavy dinner, you’re not as likely to get rid of those calories before you turn in. “What you don’t burn off is more likely to be stored as fat, as you become less active toward the end of the day,” says Tracy Lockwood, a registered dietitian at F-Factor Nutrition. “Eating too close to bedtime increases your blood sugar and insulin, which causes you to have a hard time falling asleep. Therefore, your last meal should be the lightest of the day and should be eaten at least three hours before you go to sleep.”
There’s another reason that late-night eating, after dinner, isn’t a good idea. In most cases, those visits to the fridge involve sweet treats such as ice cream and other desserts that can send blood sugar soaring right before bed. That can lower levels of the hormone melatonin, which is supposed to help you feel tired and relaxed, so waning levels can make it harder to fall asleep. “A boost of energy coming from your dinner, which may have consisted of pasta, rice or bread, can act as a short-lived stimulant, causing you to feel more awake immediately after a meal,” says Lockwood. “Also, it is not recommended to lie down immediately after a meal, especially a big one, since it increases your chance for acid reflux.”
Keep it light. “If you go to Europe and places where there is not as much obesity as the rest of the world, people eat very late and they’re not necessarily overweight. That’s because they are walking everywhere and they are typically not eating a huge and heavy meal,” says Caplan. “Instead, it may be avocado and toast with a side of soup.”
There’s clearly no formula for healthy eating that applies to everyone for maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding illness, but paying attention to both what and when you eat might be a good place to start.