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plate clockI find out if what’s on the clock is as important as what we eat…

Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. It was American nutritionist Adelle Davis who coined this famous phrase in the 1960s – and few other expressions have had such power over our daily bread.

But recent research has started to question our clock watching mentality. Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day, does scoffing after six always pile on the pounds and just who came up with the idea of three square meals? We find out what makes us tick and what’s behind the times.

Bed then breakfast

‘Breaking your fast’ has always been about filling up after sleep, regulating appetite and energy levels for the day by encouraging a healthy blood sugar pattern. Other studies have gone further, suggesting a hearty morning meal can lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity – with breakfast skippers gaining more weight due to the associated cravings.  

But ‘breakfast’ as we know it today simply didn’t exist a few hundred years ago, and right up until the Middle Ages it was even considered bad manners to eat before noon.

“Cereal manufacturers would like us to believe breakfast is important but it’s a completely outdated notion,” says registered dietitian and nutritionist Dr Sarah Schenker. “We’re no longer doing the manual labour we once were or getting up as early. Back then, breakfast was eaten in anticipation of a hard day’s work or after a hard morning but with most of us now sitting at desks all day – so who really needs it?”

While breakfasters tend to be healthier overall, research suggests its other common qualities such as the amount of exercise they do or socio-economic factors that make them fitter, rather than the fact they eat breakfast.

For registered nutritionist Rob Hobson, when you eat is not as important as what you eat. “Many people (me included) can’t face eating first thing, so why force food down for the sake of eating? But if you are eating in the office, make sure it’s something healthy and protein-rich such as porridge, yoghurt or avocados with a little lime juice, chilli and seeds.”

And, could some of us be better off skipping breakfast all together? “For individuals in the obese category, studies have shown skipping breakfast can actually be a good way of limiting daily calories and preventing further weight gain,” says Renee McGregor, senior sports nutritionist at the University of Bath.

Too little, too late

For years, we’ve also been told to avoid eating after six, or eight, or 9pm – but is there any truth in these arbitrary timings?

“It makes sense to consume the larger portion of calories earlier in the day so we have chance to use the energy they provide,” says nutrition therapist Tracey Harper. “If we eat late, the calories/energy we don’t use are converted to glycogen and stored in the liver, then converted to fat and stored around the middle.”  

But registered dietitian and nutritionist Priya Tew believes are bodies are not on a timer. “The body responds to eating and digesting food in the same way at any point of the day. It doesn’t have a cut off point where it suddenly says: “it’s past 6pm, I won’t now utilize that food in my normal way”.

Indeed, in a six-month Israeli study, researchers found that participants who gave into late night cravings lost 10.5 per cent more body fat.

“It’s a bit of a fallacy that late meals get stored as fat,” affirms Renee McGregor. “If we eat in excess of our daily expenditure, this excess will be stored as fat, however it’s not about what you do day to day but the balance over the course of seven to 10 days.”

But sunset snackers be warned: if you fancy having your afters, after dark – don’t go for junk. High calorie, high fat foods increase blood sugar and in turn lower levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. And less sleep equals more abdominal fat, according to research.

Three’s a crowd

So what’s the best time to eat? The concept of three meals a day is thought to have originated from the Industrial Revolution where long working hours dictated the breakfast, lunch and dinner hour.

But these three meals also have important health implications too. “While the snack industry is built on avoiding hunger and ‘energy dips’ by encouraging continuous eating between meals – the truth is hunger is not a bad thing. Eating four to five hours apart helps our body go into the ‘fasting state’, which stops insulin production and allows us to use up stored fat,” says Dr Sarah Schenker.

Above all, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all regime. If skipping breakfast means you binge at lunchtime, then breakfast is probably best for you; if you like chocolate and crisps at night, it might be best to have a later dinner instead; if you do a lot of exercise or suffer from blood sugar lows, five small meals might be better than three.

Nutrition coach Susan Hart puts it simply: “Eat when you are hungry but stop when you are full. Learn to listen to your body and look out for those hunger signals like a rumbling tummy.”


First published in Natural Health

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