Maximize Your Meal
Lunch is the Jan Brady of meals: stuck in the middle, usually boring and sometimes ignored altogether. But it's time to stop giving breakfast and dinner all the attention, especially if you want to lose weight. Recent research shows that lunch—including where, when, and what you eat—is a big part of the pound-shedding equation. "Getting the right type of fuel at lunch can help you stay focused for a productive second half of the day," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the author of The Flexitarian Diet. "However, too much food or the wrong type can have the opposite effect and lead to an energy crash through the afternoon and evening." We asked the experts for their best advice to help you get the most out of your midday meal. Read on for their top tips.
Change things up. Turkey on whole wheat again? Brown-bagging the same old stuff could backfire on the scale. "Variety is important for getting the right mix of nutrients, and it helps you enjoy your meal more because it's visually appealing," says Cheryl Forberg, RD, the chef and nutritionist for The Biggest Loser and author of Flavor First. That translates to feeling full and satisfied. In fact, a study published in Appetite found that people who had a healthy lunch ate less at dinnertime. Blatner suggests packing a 400- to 500-calorie lunch that's about 25 percent protein (3 to 4 ounces), 25 percent whole grains (3/4 to 1 cup), and 50 percent colorful vegetables (about 2 cups), plus about 100 calories' worth of healthy fat. "The grains give you immediate fuel and energy, the protein and fat have staying power to keep you full, and the water and fiber in the vegetables fill you up and provide essential vitamins and minerals," Blatner explains.
Don't eat too late. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that dieters who had lunch after 3:00 p.m. lost significantly less weight, and at a slower rate, over a 20-week period than those who ate their meal earlier, even though both groups consumed similar quantities and types of foods. "Eating every few hours is important for keeping energy levels up and ensuring you don't overindulge," Forberg notes. "It also helps you stay tuned to your natural hunger cues so you don't become a mindless grazer." She suggests setting a timer or scheduling your lunch and snacks in your calendar like meetings. "The best time to eat is when you're hungry but not starving," Blatner adds. "Lunch should be about four to six hours after breakfast, with a small snack in between if you need it."
Squeeze in a sweat session. Exercising at lunch is a great way to torch calories midday. "It also lets you get some fresh air and clear your mind so you can be more productive in the afternoon," says Nancy Clark, RD, a sports nutrition counselor and the author of Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook. You may have to modify what and when you eat to have enough fuel in the tank but not so much that you're weighed down. "Some people can eat and run, but others need to wait half an hour to an hour before exercising, depending on how much they're eating and the intensity of the exercise they'll be doing," Clark notes. "Experiment to find the right balance." She suggests starting with something small—think half a sandwich or a piece of fruit—30 minutes before you exercise, then consuming the bulk of your meal afterward.
Ditch your desk. According to a survey by the American Dietetic Association, more than 60 percent of Americans work through their lunch break. Besides avoiding crumbs in your keyboard, there are a couple of compelling reasons to stop toiling away between bites. "It's too easy to be distracted, which can lead to overeating because you don't realize how much you've had," Blatner says. Indeed, a recent review of studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that distracted dining caused people to eat more at their midday meal and the next one. It can also mean an increase in sick days: Researchers at the University of Arizona discovered that the average desktop has 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table and 400 times more than the average toilet seat. Get up and eat somewhere else, whether it's the office break room, the kitchen area, or a nearby park bench.
Show restaurant restraint. Going out to lunch with a friend instead of eating alone at your desk can make you feel more relaxed afterward, according to a recent study in the journal PLOS One. But University of Toronto researchers found that the average restaurant lunch contains 1,000-plus calories, which is why Forberg and Blatner advise doing a little research before you dine out. "Most chains list nutrition information online, and using it to plan ahead will help you make good choices even when you're starving," Blatner says. If you're going to an all-you-can-eat restaurant, survey all your options, then start with the healthiest one, even if it's in the middle of the buffet; a Cornell University study found that the first three foods that diners encountered ended up comprising 66 percent of what they put on their plates.