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8 Ways Smart Meal Timing Can Improve Your Health

  • It Can Help You Lose Weight

    You may have heard some variation on this phrase: "Eat breakfast like a queen, lunch like a princess and dinner like a pauper." New research says that's good advice. In a recent study, researchers examined the weight loss efforts of 420 women and men over five months. They found that people who ate the majority of their calories before 3 p.m. not only lost weight faster, but lost more weight overall (about 22 percent more!) than those who noshed later in the day. "Planning ahead to have three meals and at least one snack in the afternoon really reinforces self-control and rational food choices," adds Armul. She suggests opting for snacks that combine produce with protein, like peanut butter spread on a banana or an apple, berries in Greek yogurt, or baby carrots with a handful of almonds, because they take longer to digest than simple carb snacks (ie: a candy bar or bag of pretzels or chips) and you'll stay full longer.

  • It May Build Your Muscles

    If it's time to step up your strength training, breakfast can make or break your goals. "That's when protein breakdown is at the highest peak," explains Jennifer McDaniel, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "You've slept all night. You haven't had anything to eat so you're in a fasted state. That's when protein intake is very important." Try to hit 20-30 grams in that morning meal, which you can nab with a breakfast parfait that has one cup of Greek yogurt. If grab-and-go is more your style, try a protein bar, piece of fruit, string cheese and a hard-boiled egg.

  • You'll Avoid the Afternoon Energy Slump

    The one time of day you're most likely to give in to tempation and eat poorly: 4:12 p.m., according to a recent study. "People hit a mid-afternoon slump in their energy level and their blood sugar is at a low," explains Armul. "It's not a matter of willpower; it's just what your body wants—something convenient, fast and high in calories, fat and sugar." Solution? Again, think protein and produce, but don't be afraid to add a little fat into the mix. "It helps with fullness and satisfaction so you may eat less. Many fat-free foods have sugar added to replace the flavor the fat provides, and that sugar may cause a quick burst of energy rather than a longer, sustained energy boost," says Armul. Better options: Reduced fat cheese or yogurt, cottage cheese made with 1-2 percent fat, or a handful of almonds.

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    It Could Help You Sleep Better

    Recent studies reveal that what you eat at night may be just as important as your exposure to sunlight when it comes to setting your body's internal clock. To get a good night's sleep, as the saying goes, eat dinner like a pauper. Don't eat within a couple of hours of your bedtime, and minimize your saturated fat intake. Some research indicates that foods containing saturated fat (red meat, pork, lamb, dairy products) disrupt circadian rhythms and eating them near bedtime may prevent you from falling asleep. Choose lean protein (broiled or baked fish and chicken, for example) or roasted turkey, which also provides tryptophan, a natural sleep-inducing chemical.

    As for that bedtime snack, consider munching on frozen cherries. "Both tart and sweet cherries are excellent sources of melatonin, a natural chemical that helps regulate sleep and circadian rhythm," says Armul. "Research shows that cherries can improve sleep quality and duration. Frozen cherries are sweet but healthy, and they take time to eat, so you're less likely to over-snack."

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    It May Lower Your Risk for Diabetes and Metabolic Disease

    "Diabetes management is all about getting insulin and blood sugars in the right spectrum, and research indicates that eating more at the beginning of the day—and small amounts throughout the rest of the day—improves insulin sensitivity," says McDaniel. One study found that people who ate a late lunch (think after 3 p.m.) lost less weight and had worse insulin sensitivity, which is linked to a higher risk of diabetes, compared to people who ate lunch earlier. If you are at risk for diabetes, talk to your doctor or nutritionist about ways to time your meals and snacks to maintain normal blood sugar levels.

  • It Could Boost Fertility

    If anyone wants to nail down perfect timing, it is a woman trying to conceive. Recent studies from Tel Aviv University have shown that starting the day with a large breakfast and tapering food intake over the course of the day improves insulin sensitivity, lowers testosterone levels, and increases ovulation frequency, all of which may impact and improve fertility. In one study, women who ate a large breakfast, a moderate lunch and a small dinner experienced a whopping 50 percent rise in ovulation rate. "Changing the timing of your eating may change the way some of your key hormones act without any of the negative side effects of some fertility treatments," says McDaniel. "It's a low-risk strategy with a potentially high reward, and eating small meals throughout the day is a good start for how you should eat during pregnancy. Many pregnant women need to eat every few hours to avoid nausea, and it's a healthy start for a developing baby to have foods readily available throughout the day."

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    It Can Make Your Workout More Effective

    By now, we know that what you eat before and after a workout matters. "Typically you want to consume some carbohydrates, although not a heavy meal, within an hour of exercising," says McDaniel. "Carbohydrates are the fuel that drives your exercise, so reach for yogurt and fruit or whole wheat toast or a banana with nut butter." If you're doing an intense bout of exercise for longer than an hour, supplementing with a sports drink, like Gatorade, has been shown to improve performance times and help you exercise longer and harder.

    Once you're done with a workout, it's best to consume a combination of protein and carbs to boost recovery replenish what you used to get through your routine. McDaniel suggests cottage cheese with fruit, a smoothie with milk or yogurt, or what she deems an almond joy oatmeal—oats with chocolate protein powder, slivered almonds and unsweetened shredded coconut.

    Related: What to Eat Before and After a Workout

  • It Can Make You Happier

    Dips in blood sugar can make you feel shaky and grumpy, and the all-too-familiar "hangry" emotion comes out to play, says McDaniel. "Carbohydrates boost serotonin levels, which can stimulate a good mood and make you feel relaxed. So when people go on very low-carb diets, serotonin becomes very low and so does their mood." Stop lashing out by eating nutritious snacks that combine carbohydrates and fat, like yogurt with granola, or a slice of whole wheat bread with peanut butter. The carbohydrate will give you energy and a serotonin boost, and the fat in the peanut butter can create a steady flow of energy so blood sugars won't spike fast.

    For the perfect happy meal (that doesn't require a trip to McDonald's), McDaniel suggests mixing cooked whole-grain pasta with white beans, diced chicken, veggies and Italian dressing. "This meal has a very even glycemic load; it's got fiber which helps lower the glycemic index, and it's got good quality protein, healthy fats with the olive oil, chicken to provide relaxation-inducing tryptophan, and carbohydrates to boost the serotonin." Ahhh....happiness in a bowl.