BUPA GLOBAL

Meal schedule

Busting the three-meals-a-day myth

Woman adding herbs into a cooking pot

For years, we’ve had mixed messages about when we should eat, whether it's breakfast, lunch and dinner at set times, lighter meals peppered throughout the day or a strict no-snacking policy.

As a society, we have a lot going on in our daily lives: balancing work with home life, fitting in hobbies, squeezing in travelling and seeing friends, as well as making room for some downtime. Factoring rigid mealtimes into these already hectic days can leave us feeling pressured and even more stressed about our eating habits.

But with conflicting research about the benefits of meal scheduling on our health, it could be time to stop worrying about when you eat, and start focusing on what you eat.

Is timing everything?

“The things that matter are what you’re eating and how much you’re eating,” says Dr Luke Powles, Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics. “Daily calorie intake and the quality of your food are much more important than the time and frequency.”

So it doesn’t matter really if you choose to squeeze those calories into a 10-hour window or spread them throughout the day across six light meals. Just keep them healthy and within the calorie allowance.

The well-known guide is that men should aim for around 2,500 calories a day to maintain their weight, while the figure for women is around 2,000 calories (although these may vary depending on age, metabolism and exercise levels).

Eat well for your body and mind

The much-celebrated Mediterranean diet, which includes a lot of fresh vegetables, fruits, olive oil, beans and fish may lower the risk of developing heart disease and stroke11.

But eating also affects our mental wellbeing: there is evidence that oily fish, with its omega-3 fatty acids, can help boost a low mood2, so try to include some mackerel, tuna or salmon in your weekly meals.

Don’t worry about skipping breakfast

The old adage “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is not necessarily true – skipping breakfast may not be a cardinal sin after all.

A recent study found eating breakfast had no discernible benefit for obesity-related anthropometrics (measuring the size and proportions of the human body)3, which is good news if you run on empty until lunchtime.

So we don’t need to eat three meals a day. The only rules are: eat when you’re hungry, don’t eat too much, and always have a varied and healthy diet that’s crammed full of fruit and vegetables.

By following this simple advice, you can take your eye off the clock, fit your meal and snack times around your busy day and, most importantly, focus on savouring every nourishing bite.

While a healthy diet and lifestyle are more beneficial for your body and mind than a tightly controlled meal schedule, there are some bad habits to avoid.

Do you recognise any of these eating patterns?

The hit-and-miss eater: Prioritises tasks and work meetings over food

When you’re rushing from meeting to meeting, or ferrying the kids around to their various activities, there’s barely time to catch your breath, let alone enjoy a balanced meal.

Before you know it, you’re reaching for crisps or pretzels or wolfing down a pre-packaged sandwich.

“Prioritising tasks over food can have an impact on the quality of the foods you choose,” says Dr Powles. “Packaged, processed foods can be high in salt and saturated fats.”

Instead, prepare lunches at home, and pop some nuts, fruit or carrot sticks in your bag to resist the lure of the vending machine.

The all-day faster: Eats nothing all day then overdoes it at dinner time

If barely a morsel of food has passed your lips all day, there’s a danger you could overindulge when you finally sit down to eat. Be wary that your late-night trip to a fast food joint or family-sized tub of ice cream could mean you exceed your daily calorie allowance in one hit.

The carb feaster: Can’t resist the lure of bread and pasta

But as Dr Powles warns: “If your diet is high in carbohydrates, your body may be encouraged to secrete higher levels of insulin, which in turn can encourage more of the food you’re eating to be converted into fatty tissue.”

Aim for less-processed varieties of carbohydrates, such as wholemeal pasta. Keep the skins on potatoes for added fibre and ensure you also eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and protein.

Instead, prepare lunches at home, and pop some nuts, fruit or carrot sticks in your bag to resist the lure of the vending machine.

Remember, you are what you eat, not when you eat.

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Sources

1. University of Cambridge (http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/mediterranean-diet-could-lower-the-risk-of-cardiovascular-disease-in-the-uk), last accessed in August 2019

2. US National Library of Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4540034/), last accessed in August 2019

3. The FASEB Journal (http://www.fasebj.org/content/31/1_Supplement/lb363.short), last accessed in August 2019

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