There’s an old saying that goes, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” A new study published in The Journal of Nutrition provides evidence that maybe we should all be doing just that.
The study, led by Hana Kahleova, the director of clinical research at the Physicians Committee, looked at how the size, timing, and number of meals eaten each day affected changes in the BMI (body mass index) of 50,000 health-conscious participants over the course of seven years. After adjusting for sociodemographic and lifestyle factors, Kahleova found that eating the biggest meal of the day earliest is best for maintaining a healthy weight, as is eating less frequently.
While you’ve probably heard the advice about eating six small meals a day to avoid getting too hungry and overeating—and consequently gaining weight—Kahleova’s research seems to recommend the opposite. In the study, those who ate more than three times a day and ate their biggest meal later in the day, after 6 PM, had the greatest increase in their BMI.
But isn’t weight loss and gain all ultimately out calories in and calories out, no matter when you eat or burn them? Kahleova would argue that it’s not quite that simple.
“Our body has an inner clock and regulates the levels of different hormones during the day,” says Kahleova. “So, for example, insulin is secreted most efficiently in the morning. Therefore, our carbohydrate load should be the largest in the morning.”
The study also found that those who ate less than three meals a day and those who had a long overnight fast—18 or more hours—also saw decreases in their BMI. So to combine all the results into an optimum weight-loss eating pattern, the study suggests eating a giant breakfast, eating the rest of your calories for the day at lunch, then calling it quits on eating for the rest of the day.
The study did have its weaknesses, however: the researchers weren’t able to track whether the weight loss of the participants was intentional or not, and, as with any observational study, there’s always the possibility that changes in BMI weren’t related to meal timing. But overall, the results do suggest that avoiding snacking, eating your biggest meal of the day first, and eating fewer meals can positively affect BMI. So if you’re looking to maintain or lose weight, it might be worth considering incorporating some of these habits into your diet—even if you’re not quite ready to give up dinner forever.