Need to Know
  1. Effects of meal timing on metabolism is a hot research topic
  2. Some studies show that timing matters; others less so
  3. The best schedule may not be breakfast, lunch, & dinner

It’s pretty common in the United States to eat “three square meals a day,” morning, noon, and night. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are ingrained into our lives, such that even the smallest deviation needs to be named and explained. (See: “brunch.”)

But does it really matter when we eat? A growing number of scientists and healthy living enthusiasts are asking this question, with interesting — if mixed — results.

Over at Mother Jones, writer Kiera Butler makes the case for ditching the traditional “breakfast, lunch, dinner” structure. Butler chats with historian Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal, who explains that European settlers brought their meal structure with them to America: a light breakfast, a heavier midday meal, and a lighter dinner. But prosperity made meals heartier (workers could buy meat) and the industrial revolution shifted their timing (it made more sense to eat the biggest meal of the day after work). Butler paints what’s happened since as a marvel of marketing: Breakfast, for example, became “the most important meal of the day,” full of opportunities for cereal makers and fruit growers to make their mark on the American table.

Butler goes on to cite several studies saying that not only is the concept of breakfast not that important, but meal times and meal frequency don’t matter much at all. Among her evidence: a 2014 study that found that eating breakfast didn’t affect one’s metabolism and a 2010 study that found no substantial weight loss differences between people who ate three times a day and people who ate six times a day.

Meanwhile, Pacific Standard makes the case that when we eat really does matter. In that corner: a 2010 study showing that people who exercised and then ate breakfast (vs. the other way around) gained less weight, and a newly released study showing that fruit flies had healthier hearts when they were restricted to eating during only certain hours.

Funnily enough, both Mother Jones and Pacific Standard agree on one thing: Intermittent fasting, or restricting eating to only certain hours (or even certain days), might be the ticket to revving up one’s metabolism. Intermittent fasting is being heavily researched at the moment, and it is already showing some positive results, though there’s more study yet to be done.

So, it may be true that the timing of when we eat does make a difference. And at the same time, it may also be true that the best schedule for a given person’s meals may not be the one we call “breakfast,” “lunch,” and “dinner.”

Top photo source: Flickr user Magnus D