Does it matter when you eat when it comes to fat loss? This question comes up a lot when dieting to lose body fat. Does meal timing matter? How many meals should you eat a day? Can you eat carbs after 6pm? Should you avoid eating late at night?
Is breakfast the most important meal of the day? Will you put on fat if you miss it?
The answer to all these questions is no, but also yes! Let me explain…
For successful fat loss we know that we need to lay the foundations i.e. energy balance. That means no matter when or what we eat we must be in a calorie deficit to lose body fat.
This involves creating a negative energy balance by taking in less energy than we expend which, in turn, forces the body to use its stored energy: fat. This, in a nutshell is how we lose body fat. At this level fat loss is this simple but, do you know what is not simple?
And do you know what impacts human eating behaviour? Meal timings!
It is very easy to say ‘you just need eat less calories than you expend to lose weight’ but how you implement this in the real world is much harder and more complex. We don’t just eat calories, we eat food. And we eat food socially, for enjoyment, at business meetings, with family, when we are hungry, when we are sad, when we crave something sweet, because we are bored. My point here is that we don’t always eat because we need to, we eat because we want to, and we often eat too much.
Eating behaviour is where meal timing can influence your fat loss. For example, not always, but most of the time if someone is going to over eat it tends to be in the evening. That’s why rules like not eating after 6pm work so well. Calories are not magically more fattening after 6pm, but you are simply more likely to over eat and make poor or even subconscious food choices in the evening while mindlessly eating in front of the TV.
Rules like this work well because they are simple and easy to follow. There is no guess work, they are straightforward and uncomplicated to follow and that is why people are drawn to these rules. Having too much flexibility within your diet can actually make it harder to stick to. But understanding why these rules work is a freeing concept. It means that you don’t have to stick to them, but you may wish to implement them with the understanding of how and why they are effective.
So yes, meal timing does matter, but this is more from a behavioural stand point than a physiological one. Fat loss is dictated by your calorie balance over time. We usually look at this from day to day by setting daily calorie targets. When you consume these calories will not impact fat loss on a physiological level, but finding a meal pattern that works for you will make it easier for you to stick to your calorie goal.
My advice would be to find a way of eating that makes creating a sustainable energy deficit as easy and convenient for you as possible. You may want to set yourself rules that help you avoid over eating or snacking at times you are most prone to this. Doing this consistently over time will force your body to use its own stores of energy (fat) for fuel.
This could mean avoiding eating after dinner if evening snacking is your vice, or you may enjoy a larger meal in the evening and so opt to save some calories during the day for this. How you create an energy deficit is up to you and should be dictated by your preferences, social life, family and work commitments.
I hope this advise puts your mind at ease and helps you understand why meal timings do and don’t matter for fat loss.