The whole world is leading through some challenging times, with many of you confined to your homes with more time to spare. Which means you’re likely trying to find ways to cope with the growing anxiety and boredom. Unfortunately, eating tends to be one of the things most people turn to when they are stressed or bored, and this could affect mental and physical health. Intentional eating and keeping to schedule has become more important than ever so you don't end up snacking all day and all night. At times like these you may be wondering what the best eating pattern is, what your biggest meal should be, and how to keep grazing at bay. Luckily, we’ve got the answers:
Should you stop eating at night?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no scientific data conclusively determining when you should stop eating. In reality, your individual schedule plays a significant role when it comes to whether night time eating is appropriate for you or not. Some people study late into the evening and need to nibble at night. Others are in bed by 9pm. The important thing to note is that eating dinner late at night or having an evening snack alone will not make you gain weight, but here’s the catch - overeating in a 24 hour period will.
Research on time-restricted eating versus standard calorie restriction has shown very little difference between the two in terms of weight management. In fact a study conducted in 2018 combined the results of 6 studies and found that weight management in time restricted eating versus calorie restricted eating was very similar. This is likely because your body uses calories (energy) for all 24 hours of the day so there is no specific time of day that you need to stop eating. Weight management primarily comes down to calories in and calories out, and so when you eat these calories doesn't really matter.
So in theory, if you require 2000 calories from food per day you can eat that amount within 6 hours or within 15 hours. Eating it over a longer period of time and stretching those calories later into the evening will not result in weight gain just because you are eating at night. Overeating and lack of exercise is what ultimately leads to weight gain.
The real problem with night time eating, however, is often due to the amount and type of food eaten. Eating unhealthy junk food before bed will excessively raise your calorie intake for the day, even if you’ve eaten healthily throughout the day. So, if you find that you snack in front of the TV before bed, and those snacks tend to be high calorie foods such as crisps, ice cream or chocolate, give yourself an eating curfew to stop the night time nibbling to reduce your daily calorie consumption.
How many meals should you have a day?
There is no clear cut answer here..
We can all agree that snacking around the clock will result in too many calories being consumed - contributing to weight gain. But there is conflicting research with regards to how many meals and snacks you should have vs which meal should be your “main meal”.
Many studies examining the effect of breakfast on weight loss have shown a possible association between skipping breakfast and being overweight/obese- strengthening its role as the “most important meal of the day”. Research has also shown that a substantial breakfast may prevent weight regain by reducing hunger and cravings. However, a recent contradictory study that combines the results of 13 randomised control trials showed that eating breakfast may result in a higher calorie intake and those who skipped breakfast had slightly more favourable weight loss results. And if we look at dinner, things don’t get any clearer. A meta-analysis from 2017 showed no differences in weight loss efforts between small and large dinner eaters.
What does this tell us? There is no one-size-fits all approach when it comes to weight management, the only key is consistency. So try to keep to your “normal” schedule as far as possible during this time. If you usually have very little for breakfast, suddenly increasing your breakfast can result in more calories consumed. Similarly, if you usually eat a substantial breakfast, a sudden reduction can also cause problems. Skipping meals that your body is expecting is inadvisable as this can actually contribute to weight gain. This is because when we skip meals, our bodies create a hormone called ghrelin which tells our brains that we are hungry. The only way to stop ghrelin in its tracks is to eat! Your body has no other way to stop its production, and so when you skip meals this continuous ghrelin build up can cause uncontrollable hunger, leading to overeating and possibly weight gain.
How do you stop grazing all day?
Be smart about your snacks!
The secret lies in carefully choosing your snacks and your meals. Refined grains and sugary snacks spike your blood sugar levels, only to be followed by a tremendous dip in blood sugar levels - and this is when the cravings set in. Maintaining stable blood sugar levels is one of the easiest ways to curb the cravings, and this is improved in three ways:
#1. Fill up on fibre, think veggie like roast chickpeas, fresh fruit and high fibre grains such as popcorn.
#2. Up the protein load like cottage cheese, greek yoghurt, boiled eggs and jerky are good options
#3. Reach for healthy fats like nut butters, seeds and avocado.
Keep a healthy eating routine..
Disruptions in life don’t need to result in disruptions in eating patterns. Try to keep your eating pattern as similar to your usual as possible. These tips may help:
- Prep in advance: having healthy snacks and meals ready in advance will reduce the risk of unhealthy snacking. If you are an avid meal prepper, consider continuing this practice even when working from home.
- Choose an eating window: this does not need to be anything extreme, but can help reduce snacking, especially late night snacking. Choosing to eat only within a 10-12 hour eating window may help to control calories while still allowing for family life and enough time to get vital nutrients.
3. Get some space: while having snacks between meals can be incredibly beneficial, make sure that you’re not constantly grazing. Aim to leave 3-4 hours between snacks and meals, and listen to your hunger cues (you may be bored instead of hungry).
Eat with intention and mindfulness..
Grazing all day can be corrected by getting in touch with your body, and learning to read when you are hungry and when you are full. Working from home can be the perfect time to do this. This is how you can create new habits:
- Put down your phone when eating: this goes for any electronic device for that matter. If you are eating while working or watching TV, you most certainly aren’t listening to your body’s natural hunger and satiety cues. By eating your meals at a table and removing distractions at snack time, you are less likely to overeat.
- Enjoy family meals: since we have the time, let’s enjoy sitting around the dining table with our families! A 2011 analysis of 17 studies on family meal times has suggested that eating more family meals results in the consumption of healthier foods and can reduce weight gain risk.
- Try new hobbies: consistent eating can be caused by emotional triggers and boredom. This is where coping mechanisms and new hobbies come in. Let’s give learning a new language, doing a new workout, mediation or reading a book a try before reaching for the crisps. Self reflection is also important here, so always evaluate the reasons you want to snack: Are you bored? Upset? Or genuinely hungry?
Being more mindful and intentional when you eat can help you put in only what your body needs.