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Best Time to Eat Meals

Skipping meals or eating meals on a random schedule can drain your body of energy

I tend to eat whenever I feel like it. I pretty much ignore breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. Is this unhealthy, as opposed to eating a set number of times per day at set times, and why? My parents tell me "it's healthier" to eat during set times of the day.

  • We want to focus our attention on doubtful claims that are widely held or are made by notable people. Please provide some references to places where this claim is being made. – Oddthinking Feb 10 '13 at 4:54
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    It would seem to me that many parents make this claim to children (like mine did). I can't cite 'them', but it's an important question to get straight. Most sites only mention specific advantages or disadvantages (e.g. eat at regular times to maintain constant blood sugar levels), but I'm looking for more / wider advantages and disadvantages. I added one of the sites I found. – Jason Feb 10 '13 at 5:04
  • Do others concur? Did you hear this from your parents? I never did, but I may be the outlier. – Oddthinking Feb 10 '13 at 6:06
  • My roommates seem to think so. Then again, I can't find articles online strictly talking about this. But I'm sure there's more than one person who has the same curious question. – Jason Feb 10 '13 at 6:07
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    @Oddthinking - yes, it's a popular folk wisdom. – user5341 Feb 11 '13 at 14:27
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I thought that we would have evolved with irregular meal-times, and the evidence would demonstrate the desire for regular meal-times was an "old wive's tale". I was surprised by the evidence, which does support the idea of regular meal-times.

Energy after Eating

Nine lean women were given regular meals and irregular diet with up to 9 meals per day.

CONCLUSION: Irregular meal frequency led to a lower postprandial energy expenditure compared with the regular meal frequency, while the mean energy intake was not significantly different between the two. The reduced TEF with the irregular meal frequency may lead to weight gain in the long term.

(Note: The last sentence is speculation. They did not observe weight-gain during the trial.)

The same authors tried it again with obese women:

Ten obese women were put on regular and irregular meal times for two weeks:

Conclusion: Regular eating has beneficial effects on fasting lipid and postprandial insulin profiles and thermogenesis.

Some other studies show some less directly related, but still interesting, results:

In Your Head

  • This study shows that "dinner time" hunger may be more about what time your head thinks it is, rather than the state of your stomach.

Regular Family Meals

  • Related to the idea of regular meals, is the idea of regular family meals. There are a number of positive social effects related to regular family meals.

  • In Finnish children, not having a regular family dinner is correlated to eating more sweets, more problematic behaviour and a lower socio-economic class. I would tentatively suggest the causation is more likely to flow from the socio-economic class towards the other items.

  • In Minnesotan children, regular family meal times was associated with healthier eating five years later. Again, I suspect socio-economic class and education to be a confounding factor. (Same authors)

Meal Frequency - Nibbling versus Gorging

Just because you have regular meal times, doesn't mean there aren't a lot of them throughout the day.

  • Awesome, thanks for the thorough answer. I'm just curious as a side question - what sites or tools do you use to answer questions? What resources do you use? I was able to find 3 similar links using Google Scholar Search, but maybe you have some additional resources. This isn't just for this topic; it's for personal research in general. – Jason Feb 12 '13 at 8:53
  • @Jason: Pubmed is what you should use for this sort of things (you may also want to try GOPubmed, which uses the same database but adds gene ontology filters to it). – nico Feb 12 '13 at 13:13
  • On the first study and second, what they refer to as "irregular" pattern, is eating with randomized predetermined pattern, which I believe has the obvious conclusion that they got. I believe when people say they don't have regular eating time, it usually means eating when you feel hungry irrespective of wall time. I'm on the latter camp, in that I don't sync mealtime with daytime, not do I have a preset time to have a meal, but I let my body signal me when it needs to eat. – Lie Ryan Feb 16 '13 at 10:06
  • @Jason: I used Google Scholar, refining the search as I read some of the papers to get relevant terms. There is a meta-question on the subject of good sources. – Oddthinking Feb 16 '13 at 19:50
  • @Lie: Interesting point. That makes the conclusions less useful. Thank you. – Oddthinking Feb 16 '13 at 19:51

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