The so-called rules about the best times to eat are enough to make you want to throw your clock out the window:
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Eat less, but more often.
Don't dine before bedtime.
But does it really matter when you eat? If weight is an issue, whether you want to lose some or gain none, here's what you should know.
BREAKFAST IS CRUCIAL
"Breakfast remains the most important part of the day," said Marlo Mittler, a child and adolescent nutritionist at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park. "We know that by eating a balanced meal in the morning, you feed your metabolism. This will help on your journey to lose weight, as you have more hours to burn calories while you are most active."
Eating breakfast also lowers the risk that people will sit out the first meal of the day and then overeat later on. Stephanie Giraulo, director of nutritional services at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, said many morbidly obese people try to lose weight by starving themselves in the morning and afternoon. But then "they eat out of control as the day goes by," contributing to their weight problem, she said.
Mittler suggested people make a special effort to eat a balanced meal at breakfast, "when your body is setting the tone for the day in terms of energy needed and your metabolism." Breakfast, she said, "should be a meal that is balanced with whole-grain carbohydrates to give you energy, protein to feed your brain, organs and muscles, and a healthy fat to keep you satisfied. Of course, vegetables and fruits add minerals and vitamins."
FOR WEIGHT LOSS, TRY SMALLER (BUT MORE FREQUENT) MEALS
If your schedule allows some flexibility, Giraulo recommended five to six small meals a day, eating every three to four hours. Though the number of calories needed will vary from person to person, more-frequent meals should typically be 250 to 300 calories, she said. For instance, she suggested:
Greek yogurt with 10 walnuts
10 almonds and a part-skim mozzarella cheese stick
Half a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread with lettuce and perhaps a slice of avocado
Whole-wheat pretzels with hummus
For those who can't fit more than three meals into the day, Dr. Salini Kumar, director of endocrine education at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, recommended progressing from a larger breakfast to small dinner: "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper."
EATING BEFORE BED CAN BE OK
In some situations, it's all right to eat late at night, but make sure you're chowing down for the right reason, Mittler said.
"Eating earlier gives your body time to feed your metabolism, and the excess can get burned off," she explained. "Also, many people who eat late are already over-hungry or tired and are eating too much for the wrong reason," Mittler added.
"However, if you are hungry at night and you feed your body with the right small meal, it will not negatively affect your weight loss," she said. "In fact, if it has been hours and you have not eaten, or you just came back from the gym or you are up late studying, your body may need a late-night snack to refuel."
BE SURE TO EAT AFTER EXERCISING
"After a workout at the gym, it's important to refuel after you return to help feed your bones and muscles," Mittler said. "For example, a glass of chocolate milk after a workout will give your bones the calcium they need, add protein to the muscles you worked and provide some fat to help the calcium be absorbed."