T he consistency and timing of your meals/snacks throughout the day is key to keeping your body energized and happy and provides benefits to your overall health and well-being.
Several articles in recent years have emphasized that it doesn't really matter when we eat. Although I would agree that precise or strict timing of meals and snacks is unnecessary, there are benefits to having somewhat of a consistent eating schedule throughout the day. Ideally, we rely on our hunger cues and body’s signals to guide us on when to eat throughout the day, but when our eating patterns have been more chaotic or we’ve gotten used to skipping meals and not eating enough throughout the day, our hunger cues may not reliable when starting out. Let’s dive into why meal timing matters and how to get started.
We need a certain amount of energy each day, and at different times throughout the day, to thrive. This energy comes from the carbs, fats and proteins we consume. Regular meals and snacks allow for more opportunities in the day to give our body the energy and nutrients it needs to function optimally, allowing us to engage in all the things we need to do in the day. Ever feel absolutely drained by 3pm and ready to take a nap? This might be your body’s natural response to having gone multiple hours (since lunch) without a re-up of energy.
When we don’t eat enough times in the day, for example if we only eat one or two meals per day, it can be quite difficult to meet our energy and nutritional needs (e.g. protein, calcium, iron, fibre). If you have pretty reliable hunger cues, you might notice that your body tries to make up for it when you don’t eat enough in the day. For example, skipping breakfast may result in increased cravings in the afternoon and/or evening to make up for the lack of energy consumed earlier in the day. Or skipping an afternoon snack might result in being overly hungry, eating more quickly, and possibly eating past your comfortable fullness level at dinner time.
Regular meal timing also helps to promote regular digestion. Going extended periods of time without eating can increase our likelihood of eating more quickly or eating more than we may need at our next meal, which can negatively impact digestion. On the other hand, grazing continuously throughout the day prevents your body’s migrating motor complex (MMC) from firing. The MMC is an electromechanical wave of muscle contractions through your gut that acts to sweep through leftover undigested food. When we eat continuously, this “housekeeper” is unable to do its job and the build-up of residue can lead to increased bloating for some people.
The light/dark cycles of the day and our feeding/fasting times also affect our natural circadian rhythms. Consistent meal timing has been shown to promote regular circadian rhythms. Studies have shown that people with irregular eating patterns may have more difficulties processing insulin and may experience increased inflammation. There are so many articles out there promoting prolonged fasting to “clear up cellular debris”, promote insulin sensitivity and improve other metabolic markers. However, it’s important to note that we all naturally fast each night, from whenever we finish our evening snack to when we have breakfast in the morning, and this is when your body will shift gears from its fed to fasted state and will naturally experience those metabolic benefits that are talked about. The average person experiences a fast anywhere from 8-14 hours each day naturally, without needing to put a restricted time on it.
Feeding your body regularly throughout the day helps to reassure your body that you do have access to adequate food. This reassurance helps to build trust between you and your body.
I recommend having something to eat within 2 hours of waking up in the morning. This will break your fast from overnight and provide your body fuel to start the day. When we wake up and ask our bodies to engage in work meetings, getting kids ready, a morning workout and more, without providing it any fuel to do so, it has to try to get by in its fasted state. This will result in either feeling more tired/less energized and/or it will seek ways to get that energy eventually, for example through increased cravings or an increased pleasure reward from food later in the day.
You may find that you’re never hungry in the morning, which makes sense because your body has turned down your hunger cues overnight in its powered down state. Regardless, I encourage you to try to have something small as it’s still important to try to give your body some form of nourishment. It’s important to note that caffeine also suppresses appetite, so if you find that you’re fine with just a coffee in the morning, that alone may be killing your drive to eat actual food and get actual energy.
After the first meal of the day, depending on what was had and how balanced it was, most people find that they need to eat again every 3-4 hours or so. Including a protein-rich food, high-fibre starches, veg/fruits and fats in your meals will likely result in feeling full and satisfied for longer. Whereas a smaller, less-balanced meal might only keep you satisfied for an hour or so. Regardless of how long it’s been since you’ve last eaten, if you’re hungry, you need to eat.
Your body has an innate wisdom to guide your eating throughout the day, we just need to develop and strengthen our ability to hear it. In our last blog post, we introduced the different types of hunger and different ways to respond to them. Consistent meal timing plays a crucial role in helping our bodies develop those reliable hunger cues, so that we are better able to identify and respond to them in a way that suits our body’s needs. Consistent nourishment builds trust with your body by letting it know that you are able to nourish it regularly. Once we become more in tune with our hunger and fullness cues, we’ll start to notice subtle changes day to day. Some days we'll need to eat more often and bigger portions and other days we might find we aren't as hungry, and that's okay!
Written by Joy Tang and Liz Powell, RD