When it comes to losing weight, counting calories does matter—but so does keeping an eye on the clock. According to a January 2013 study published in the International Journal of Obesity, people who eat their biggest meal (lunch) early in the day shed more pounds than those who eat the same meal late.

To evaluate how the timing of food intake affects the weight-loss process, researchers studied 420 overweight people who followed a 20-week programme in Spain. The participants were
divided into two groups: early-eaters and late-eaters, and lunch was the main meal of the day (40% of the total daily calories are consumed during lunch). Early-eaters had their lunch anytime before 3pm and late-eaters after 3pm. The study found that the late-eaters also had a lower estimated insulin sensitivity which leads to the increased risk of diabetes.

“Each person should make a specific timetable (fixed timings for meals) according to his or her daily routine and should stick to that. Also, he/she should refer to a dietitian to make a proper diet chart and timetable according to his/her body weight," says Delhi-based nutritionist Akshita Aggarwal, who runs her own diet clinic. “If a person abides by the timings specified for him/her, it not only ensures weight loss and good insulin levels, but also good digestion, high energy levels, management of all body
parameters, no fatigue, maintenance of weight and better assimilation of nutrients," she adds.

The importance of the fixed time of these meals is further elaborated by a June 2012 study published in the journal Cell Metabolism. This US study was conducted on two groups of mice. One group was restricted to eating a high-fat diet for 8 hours in a day, while the other group was fed the same diet round the clock. The researchers found that both the groups consumed the same amount of food and yet the mice that ate for 8 hours were protected against obesity, diabetes and other metabolic ills. These metabolic cycles are critical for processes from cholesterol breakdown to glucose production. A poor diet might result in part from a mismatch between our body clocks and our eating schedules. However, the kind of food we eat also can’t be ignored.

Nutritionist Sonia Narang of Sonia Narang’s Diet And Wellness Clinics at Patel Nagar, Delhi, says: “Our body needs nourishment every 2-3 hours in the form of smaller meals. Giving long gaps between meals disturbs our entire system and lead to problems like obesity, headache and gas. In fact, people with migraine should have something to eat every 2 hours."

Kiran Sawhney, fitness expert at Delhi-based fitness centre Fitnesolution, says: “Sitting for long hours in office makes you store your food and slows down the metabolism. As they say, every body organ has a clock, and it should be kept ticking by having small meals at a fixed time."

However our busy schedules mean there is no ideal time for a meal. “The old adage ‘Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper’ seems to have lost its relevance now," says Ishi Khosla, a clinical nutritionist and founder of Whole Foods India. Khosla suggests that if you can’t stick to your timetable or eat a proper meal, make sure you eat something light and nutritious that will keep you full until your next meal. “For instance, if you are not hungry for breakfast, make sure you grab at least a glass of milk, yogurt or some fruit or nuts. The idea is to not go overboard with your pre-decided timetable but at the same take care of your stomach and the body routine." However, this calorie-spread should also be done carefully.

Breakfast should have the highest amount of protein and carbohydrates, according to Aggarwal. “The idea is to divide 1,500 calories (in a day) of healthy food as 100 calories early morning, 300 calories during breakfast, 200 calories before lunch and 350 calories during lunch. The remaining 550 calories should be split equally across the evening snack and dinner," says Narang. As long as you are having suitable food at a fixed time, decided by yourself, you will stay healthy.

“Along with making sure to finish your last meal 3-4 hours or at least 2 hours before bedtime, you should also try to not eat lots of carbohydrates and proteins in your dinner as they are difficult to digest," says Khosla. “Also, instead of having junk food, eat grain or cereal (oats, wholegrain bread) when you wish to snack during odd hours, like in the afternoon or at midnight," she adds.

Clearly, while a balance between caloric intake and energy expenditure is the key to a healthy body, the timing of it makes a difference too. So junk that late night cheese and wine routine and switch to a healthy diet which should include fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs, chicken, fish and wholegrains.

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