Email from a Reader: Does Eating on a Schedule Matter in Weight Loss?

by Andie Mitchell on January 25, 2012

Read the rest of this series: Email from a Reader: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

“Hello Ms. Andie,

Like many people who read your blog, I’m struggling with weight loss. I’ve had terrible health in my 19 years, from a brain tumor to multiple kidney surgeries, and a few years ago I had the misfortune of being put on steroids for my lungs (as they almost collapsed). One of the most unpleasant side effects was the weight gain. Now I can’t say it was only the medication – I’ve never been ‘fit’ since I could never walk more than a few blocks without getting winded – and my eating habits are atrocious as well. But a bunch of factors led to me being over weight (and since I’m quite short – 5’1 – it looks even worse) and now I have a new problem. University.

My question is this: lots of advice over the internet tells me to eat three times a day, or five small meals a day, at regular times, but what happens if you can’t eat at regular times? Classes are sporadic and during ‘usual’ eating hours, and with a part time job coming up, that’ll get even more complicated. Would you have any advice for eating healthier if you cant eat at certain times? Most days I don’t get up until 12 in the afternoon, and I don’t go to bed until 2 in the morning. Not to mention being at school and traveling an hour home each way doesn’t lend itself well to cooking frequently.

I know it’s a random question, but I thought you might have some insight. I really appreciate what you do – your blog, the way you’re so open with the world, the delicious food you show people – it’s really an inspiration for so many people, myself included. You make me think that, hey, maybe I can do this. Maybe I really can.
Thank you for everything you are and everything you do.”

……………………………….

K,

You are so fantastic. Thank you for writing me! I can’t imagine how hard it must be to deal with such emotional and physical trauma. You’re clearly very strong and for that, I commend you.

My advice on eating times: Don’t worry ONE BIT about noshing at regular meal times. Those times that people generally eat breakfast (morning), lunch (afternoon), and dinner (evening)? They’re arbitrary. It’s just that many people have common work hours- generally 9am to 5pm. And, historically, evolutionarily, we worked from sun up to sun down. The timing of our meals made sense for many reasons. The only thing that you need to keep in mind is this: EAT WHEN, AND ONLY WHEN, HUNGRY.

I use caps sparingly.*

*Italics? Unrestrained usage.

I would say this: Just eat from the time you wake to about an hour before you go to bed, every 4 hours (or 3-4 if 4 hours feels too long a stretch!). Whatever hour of the day you wake up, even if that’s 12pm- sister, that is your breakfast. Pay no mind to the daily clocks of others. They’re regulated on a different schedule, and yours- albeit nontraditional by common standards- is perfectly fine in its own right. Own your time. Make your schedule of eating according to how you feel. This was one of the biggest helpers in me finding my own way through weight loss.

You may naturally (organically) find you get onto a schedule like this with your eating:
12pm: Wake up. Breakfast
4pm: Lunch
8pm: Dinner
12am: 2nd dinner
This seems to me like a really reasonable plan. Try to keep each mealtime to 400-500 calories or so and you’ll be within a range of 1600-2000 calories a day.
If you need to adjust by breaking the day up into smaller, closer snack times, go ahead. Feel absolutely free.

For kicks, below is my rough eating schedule (I say ‘rough’ because I have a very difficult time following normal, repetitious order- I barely follow the same routine of shampoo, conditioner, body wash- in the shower. It’s zany and different every time.)

8am: Breakfast and an obscene amount of coffee

12pm: Lunch

3:30/4pm: Snack

7pm: Dinner

9-10pm: Dessert(s)*  (*Because I’d be lying if I didn’t add the ‘s’)

Now, I’d also like to address the size and frequency of meals. There seems to be two camps of eaters out there: those who eat 3 meals a day and those who break their intake up into 5-6 meals.

Reasoning behind eating 5-6 meals a day:
Folks who prefer this way of eating believe that by eating every few hours, they’re keeping their metabolisms running efficiently all day long. If we were going to compare the human body to a car with food being the fuel (gasoline), frequent/small meal-eaters would say that they are adding just enough fuel to their tanks every few hours to keep their car (body) moving along smoothly. There is no excess fuel in their tank to be stored as fat.

Also, frequent/small meal-eaters tend to enjoy snacking more. They don’t want to wait quite as long between each meal. By scheduling many mini meals- they’re ensuring they’ll never get too hungry between eating periods. They seem less likely to overeat at each eating time because they know that more food is just a few hours away.

Reasoning behind eating 3 square meals (and maybe 1-2 snacks):
I belong in this camp. Here’s why I personally prefer it: I like mealtimes to be longer and more celebratory and most importantly: I like to eat more in one sitting.

Over the years, I’ve experimented with eating more often and eating less often. What I found when I ate many mini meals, or through grazing all day long, was that I was constantly preoccupied with my next snack/meal. I was always tightrope-walking a line between semi-satisfied and semi-hungry. I never walked away from the table feeling the fullness that my belly has come to long for, come to love. Food was constantly on my mind.

I also found that since I was breaking my food intake into smaller calorie servings- I felt more restricted in options. That is to say- there are fewer meal options in the 250-300, say, calorie range than there are in the 500ish calorie range. A serving of lasagna, pizza, etc- each of those exceeded what I could conceivably consider a small meal. And as someone who cooks and bakes like her dog’s life depends on it- I want to feel like the meals I make are truly based upon my serving size preference.

Now, here is what I love about three big meals (and dessert):

1. I want mealtimes to be special events. By sticking food into three very regular hours (morning, noon, and night), I am making those times of day unique and noteworthy. They’re lengthy. I eat, I find my own fullness, and I am able to move on with my day. My thoughts are less food-focused.

2. I like big dinners and nighttime eating. This is, and probably always will be, my favorite time of day. For years I’ve been making dinner for my clan, and we’ve sat around the table together every night. And, goodness I hope you know this about me by now: I love dessert(s).

I could never practice the “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” way of eating. (To explain: this mantra proposes that you start the day with your biggest meal and then eat less and less as the day goes on. It’s believed that your body does not need as much fuel later in the day because you’re very likely expending less energy.) I much prefer to eat more later in the day, just because I find it relaxing, comforting, even. So long as I keep what I’m eating within my own healthy calorie range (very specific for each individual), eating at night has never inhibited my weight loss.

My bottom line: I have never gained weight from eating fewer, larger meals. Nor have I gained weight from eating a lot in the evening.  I have never lost weight from eating smaller, more frequent meals.

I truly believe that it’s just a matter of proper caloric intake for your body’s needs, no matter what time of day you eat. The reason we’re often advised to stay away from heavy nighttime eating is because people tend to go above their daily calorie needs by munching away as they watch TV to unwind at night. I believe that as long as you remain within a reasonable calorie range for your body, you can eat at absolutely any hour, even right before bed. If 1600 calories are your target for weight loss- eat them whenever you prefer.

Wishing you the best
in everything.

Andie

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica F January 25, 2012 at 8:08 pm

I agree completely with this advice! I happen to belong to the eat smaller meals but eat more often camp. I happen to be very sensitive to my blood sugar and have found that this method keeps me more stable. It’s totally what your body tells you is right!

One additional piece of advice (which you’ve likely read elsewhere on this blog and other sources) – try to get the right type of calories. I have found that eating x amount of calories of whole grains, lean proteins, and lots of fruits and veggies keeps me full and satisfied all day long, but if I try to eat x number of calories with more refined and processed foods, I’m crabby and constantly hungry. Play around with what balance is right for you and if baby steps are what you need, just remember that each day and positive choice brings you closer to your goal.

I hope I don’t sound too preachy…so not my intent. You can do this!

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The Mrs @ Success Along the Weigh January 25, 2012 at 8:22 pm

Andie, so glad you and I are in the same camp meal wise. I feel the same way when trying to break meals up into smaller ones and then I find I’m more apt to feel ravenous by dinner time and want to go nuts.

As usual awesome advice!

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Skye (Skye Loves..) January 26, 2012 at 2:02 am

Great advice – you are so right, the trick is to eat only when you’re hungry. And not get tempted into eating, just because it looks delicious…

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MelissaNibbles January 26, 2012 at 2:49 am

Great advice. I like mini-meals because I don’t like eating a ton of food at once and I like to eat more often. I think we have to find what works for us as individuals. The most important thing is that you eat and don’t eat too much. It’s actually pretty simple. Great advice as always!

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Shira January 26, 2012 at 4:43 am

Hi,
First time commenting! Absolutley love this site, and Andie (Andrea?) you are an beautiful wordsmith and inspiration :) I have sent your blog to my friend who is a fantastic writer and wants to get a book published!
Just wanted to contribute that.. I worked in bars and took Uni classes for many years, on a very similar wake up at 11am, go to bed at 2 am schedule..and I absolutely just had oatmeal at noon, lunch when people are having before dins snacks, and I often ate dinner at 11 or 12AM, due to the job. No biggie!! Just following hunger cues. Also I’ve read that it’s not good to eat most in the am and mess at night.. your body needs time to get digestion going in the am, and it’s better to eat more at night because you have all night to digest/recover? something like that!

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MomNom January 26, 2012 at 4:49 am

Hey dear…since you brought up the topic of calories. Have you ever posted on how you determined your best calorie range for weight loss/what it was? And, how you determined one for maintaining your weight loss/what it is? I searched your site, with no luck. But, I know that doesn’t mean it isn’t hidden in here somewhere….

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Yvette January 26, 2012 at 5:21 am

As soon as I started eating more frequently, I started to lose weight. I’ve lost 35 lbs and counting eating this way, so I highly recommend it. I thought it would be difficult to do, but it’s really not. Once you find what kinds of snacks are easy for you to carry around, it makes life/snacking so much easier. Some of my favorites are mini babybel cheeses, fiber one bars, apples, almonds, all bran cereal (or some other high fiber cereal) in the evening, to name a few. I find, if I wait too long between meals, I’m more likely to eat way more and make bad choices. If you snack on things that are higher in protein and fiber in-between meals, you are less likely to eat more than you need to during regular meals. Instead of waiting until a specific time, I try to eat my snacks whenever I can fit them in (unless I’m absolutely not hungry, then I’ll wait for a bit).

I’m not sure if you want to try the calorie counting route, but it really is about calories in vs calories out. Personally, it helps me to stay accountable to myself, as well as help to plan my meals and snacks, so that not only am I not eating too much, but I’m eating enough. Most people have smartphones these days, so of course, there’s an app for that ;-) I like the Daily Burn Tracker, myself. Also, if you need some additional motivation, you can check out websites and podcasts. Fat to Fit Radio and Jillian Michaels both have some interesting ones, with some good tips. Of course, exercise helps a lot too. I found spinning and love the rush it gives me. I try to spin at least once a week. Any movement is a good thing though, so even walking more will help.

I didn’t realize that this would turn into such a long comment, sorry! Good luck and have fun in university!

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Mary January 26, 2012 at 5:48 am

Andie, I love it that your whole approach to weight loss is about flexibility. There are so many ‘experts’ who say ‘this way is the only way’ and of course, few, if any, of them has lost as much weight as you have. There isn’t one plan that will guarantee success for all – if there were it would have already been packaged and sold. The reality is that weight loss can be achieved through different means for different people. And that is okay. What works for me may not work for others. I actually do small meals on work days and large meals on weekends, because it works, for me.

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Sabrina January 26, 2012 at 6:33 am

I actually find the most success in eating 5 small meals. My reasons?

I know that whether I am full or running on empty I will have the desire to eat every few hours. I solve that by planning that in to my day. So my day looks like this:

Breakfast at 8 AM: 300ish cals
Early lunch at 11:30ish: 400-600 cals
Snack at 3 PM (no matter what!): 150-300 cals depending on what’s planned for dinner
Dinner at 7ish: usually about 600 since I like it to be a full meal with my husband (protein, carb, veggie and a salad).
Dessert, if needed at 8:30 PM: fruit or a small serving of ice cream. I don’t care about the calories on this one because I only have it if I am actually hungry or really craving a sweet.

I’m also in diet mode right now so I don’t exceed 2100 calories in a day (I’m breastfeeding) but usually it is closer to 1900.

Anyway, if I ate 3 big meals + dessert every day I would end up falling off that plan and eating a snack or two regardless and end up eating too many calories.

It’s definitely true that you have to figure out what works for you.

I love these types of posts because they remind me to stay on track with my healthy lifestyle.

PS- since your salad for lunch post I have been having a BIG salad for lunch or dinner almost every day (for dinner only if my husband is working late and eating out). Thanks for the inspiration!

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tK January 26, 2012 at 9:13 am

I find that my meal frequency preference changes from day to day, and not fighting that instinct has been my best move in eating healthfully. I always start my day with some protein and fibre — usually a slice of toast and an egg or two. Then I just go with what I’m feeling… some days the next thing I want is some veggies and hummus, and then a small bowl of soup, and then a granola bar, and so forth. And some days I want a nice big, proper lunch, which gets me through with NO cravings to a decent-sized dinner. Listen to your body — or check your gas gauge. :D

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sarah January 26, 2012 at 9:51 am

Andie
I love how encouraging you are. How positive and engaged with others. I hope you get the encouragement you need to fill your heart the way you fill others.
big hugs

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Robby January 26, 2012 at 10:09 am

Totally agree with the “whatever floats thine boat” strategy. I’m a big fan of the classic three squares and a snack approach; I’m like you, Andie, I like big meals.

Especially breakfast. Love me some eggs with spinach and salsa. It’s a great way to start every day with a big, piping hot pile of protein that sates the yearning within for lunch.

So, props to you! Love your approach. And PS, I’m fairly certain I’m your only reader in the “dude” category?

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Linda January 26, 2012 at 11:32 am

Weirdly, I am of both camps. I eat 5 smaller meals Monday to Friday because with work I find I need to top up the gas tank regularly otherwise I get famished and end up overeating, leaving me feeling yucky and tired. On weekends when I am well rested I eat three hearty meals. Best advice, as you have pointed out, is to eat when you’re hungry. Interesting post and interesting responses here. Cheerio!

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Jessica Mason January 26, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I echo MomNom’s comment…how many calories do you eat a day? I’m about as tall as you and 135 is my target weight, so I am curious how much you eat, and how you got to that number. Thanks!

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Paige January 26, 2012 at 12:53 pm

I’ve settled into a routine where I eat mini meals all day up until dinner, then a larger meal for dinner, and maybe dessert. It’s easier to do the grocery shopping because I have my standard mini meals that I always have available, and then whatever recipes I’m excited about cooking, I make for dinner. The mini meals are all some kind of protein and a fruit or vegetable. I’m on Weight Watchers, and these snacks mean I’ve usually eaten all of my “healthy guidelines” by mid-afternoon, so that when it comes time for dinner, I have a little more flexibility if I want to make something that doesn’t include a ton of great vegetables or whatever (though I like to keep a bag of Trader Joe’s pre-washed green beans on hand for those occasions, so I can at least steam up something green really quickly).

My standard snacks are:

- 2 cups skim milk and a banana (I usually wouldn’t find milk filling, but I start work at 12:30 am and so my appetite is a little finicky for the first few hours of the day. This works for me.)
-2 light string cheeses and an orange
-Trader Joe’s Eggplant Hummus (!) with carrot sticks
-Hard boiled egg with fruit
-1/2 cup 0% Fage with 1 cup apple sauce, and sometimes a spoonful of preserves
-Baked tofu with fruit or veg
-A can of tuna mixed with 0% Fage, S+P and a chopped pickle, eaten with carrot “chips”
-Giant salad with homemade low fat ranch dressing

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Liz January 27, 2012 at 8:06 am

This is so well-said and I appreciate the reminder. I think I’ve been trying to be so “intuitive” that I’ve kinda lost sight of the security in “meals”. I feel more satisfied with a break/lunch/snack/dinner/dessert routine.
I’m not huge on eating lots in the morning, nor really for lunch, but I will (like you) always like a bigger dinner, dessert, etc. You’re right…it’s about overall calories, the time of day doesn’t really matter. I’m just more relaxed at night and less busy so eating more makes sense.
Love your blog. Can I say it enough already? Sheesh.

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Lisa January 27, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Hey Andi, I nominated you for the One Lovely Blog award! The details are in my blog post from 1/29. I really enjoy your blog…keep up the good work!

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Mindy January 30, 2012 at 7:02 am

Great thoughts, as always! I second (third?) the commenters with the “how do you know how many calories you need” question and do you vary it day by day depending on activity level?

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Allie January 30, 2012 at 2:08 pm

I love this post. I, too, belong to the three meals camp. My reasoning? Similar to you, I like eating to be a sit-down event. Even if it’s lunch alone, I sit for a few minutes to just eat and read, and I don’t enjoy eating on the go. So even if I have ten minutes, I sit down. I’ve found that eating on the run causes me to eat more and to have less balanced meals. When I eat one bigger lunch that has a good mix of protein, fat, and carbs, I don’t need anything else before dinner. Perfect for a college girl on the run constantly.

I’m glad you wrote this, because so many people say that five a day is better. I am healthy and rarely do I split my food up into that many meals, unless my workout schedule would go better with two small breakfasts. If I’m only running, I wake up and go, then eat when I get home. If I’m doing the gym, I’ve noticed that I can’t get through an hour of cardio and an hour of strength training without getting hungry, so I eat a half a serving of oats cooked in the microwave with a little soymilk, and then I add some protein powder and cinnamon to that. After the gym, I eat some greek yogurt and fruit before class.

I’m glad you also mentioned intuitive eating. Some of us get so obsessed with food and counting calories that when we’re hungry, we should eat, and not wait until the next “meal,” or if we are not hungry, we don’t have to eat our 200 calorie snack.

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Carissa February 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I agree with you on enjoying eating in the evening. I love having that dinner & dessert to look forward to all day. Breakfast is a close second, though! I wake up (and go to bed) anticipating my morning bowl of warm oats!

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Shannon February 6, 2012 at 9:47 pm

I’ve lost 85 lbs and I found it easier to lose by eating one serious meal a day, with snacks when I wanted or needed them.

Years of skipping meals and forgetting to eat had trained my body to only get really hungry once a day. When I tried to fight it, I found myself not enjoying what I ate at most times and totally unsatisfied at the amount when I was actually hungry.

I think it entirely depends on what works for you. Pay attention to how you feel and how various things work for you, rather than a clock or a list of foods or a rigid workout plan.

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Anne May 10, 2013 at 3:15 am

If I ate 5-6 small meals a day, I would be in BIGGER trouble. I agree with you Andie…three meals a day is my way. If I ate 5-6 meals a day, I would overeat and be constantly preoccupied with what I was going to eat next. I would not learn ANY control.

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