Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper  

A popular adage suggests we should “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper”.  [1] [2] [3]  [4] [5] [6]

We interrogated more than half a million days of food diaries to see whether it is actually helpful.

Breakfast

The chart below shows the proportion daily calories consumed at breakfast versus the proportion of a person’s daily target calories consumed based on their food diaries.  A score of 100% would mean that they achieved their calorie goal.  A score of less than 100% indicates the individual was able to consume less than their goal intake for the day.

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The data from people eating three or more times a day indicates that, on average:

  • people who ate the least for breakfast tended to eat more across the day, while
  • people who consumed more of their daily calories at breakfast tended to eat less during the day.

People who front-loaded their calories at breakfast tended to eat around 20% less across the day!

Lunch

Looking at the data for lunch, we see a similar trend.

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If you can fit it into your lifestyle, a larger lunch seems to be better.

Dinner

Where this data gets interesting is when we look at dinner.

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People seem to do OK if their dinner is similar in size to breakfast and lunch.  However, we tend to overeat if we consume the majority of our calories at night.

Putting it all together

When we overlay all three meals, we see that prioritising breakfast is a good idea if you want to get or stay lean.

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To prevent overeating, try to start your day with a hearty breakfast with a solid dose of protein and you’ll be less likely to overeat later in the day.

If you are already lean and need to recover from a hard day of activity, then eating at night will help you consume more energy and store it more effectively.

But is this result due to behaviour or biology?  Or perhaps a bit of both?

Behavioural

It’s possible to explain why we overeat at night from a purely behavioural perspective.

It can be hard to eat a lot at breakfast when you need to get off to work or at lunch when we might be at work or school and have to prepare a lunch and bring it from home.

But then at night, we have the fridge.

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We have our friends and family.

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We have Netflix.

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We have the perfect storm of comfort food, social eating and self-soothing combined with being surrounded by less than optimal food choices that we tend to fill our patry and fridge with.

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Food eaten later also has to be stored, at least until the next day to be used when we are more active.

Locking in your circadian rhythm

There have also been a number of interesting studies looking at the relationship between food timing and how it affects our body.

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Compressing your feeding window to give your body a chance to spend time in a fasted state is useful.  However, it seems shifting your eating window earlier in the day is also beneficial.  This is commonly known as Early Time-Restricted Feeding (or eTRF).

Just like it’s beneficial to get sunlight in the morning and not gaze at blue light from our screens all night, it seems it’s also important to lock in our circadian rhythm with food in the morning and not overdo it at night.[8]

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Being a shift worker is not good for your health.  Neither is eating like one.  [9] [10]

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While keeping body fat levels low is important for diabetes management, eating earlier seems to improve our insulin sensitivity independent of weight loss.

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We have greater insulin sensitivity in the morning.   Our body is primed to use food.  Food eaten later in the day is more likely to be stored for longer.

How to do it

eTRF is not always the most convenient thing.

Lots of people are not hungry in the morning, particularly if they tend to eat a large evening meal.

Left to our own devices, we tend to optimise for maximum storage to prepare for the coming winter.

Most people find it takes a week or two to get into the new groove of eating earlier.

Eating your main meal with the family at night is more social and eating in front of the TV when you’re relaxing can be fun.  But if you need that extra edge to manage your weight or diabetes then moving some of your dinner calories to breakfast might just be worth the effort.

 

references

[1] http://theconversation.com/should-we-eat-breakfast-like-a-king-lunch-like-a-prince-and-dinner-like-a-pauper-86840

[2] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2017/07/21/breakfast-like-king-lunch-like-prince-dine-like-pauper-lose/

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-12-12/should-we-eat-breakfast-like-king-dinner-like-pauper/9250960

[4] https://www.livestrong.com/article/13429520-how-eating-breakfast-like-a-king-can-help-you-lose-weight/

[5] https://www.institutefornaturalhealing.com/2017/09/heres-why-you-should-eat-breakfast-like-a-king-dinner-like-a-pauper/

[6] https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/well/eat/the-case-for-a-breakfast-feast.html

[7] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/305709786_Online_Food_Diary_Dataset

[8] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/11161204/

[9] http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2018/05/15/1714813115

[10] https://m.medicalxpress.com/news/2018-05-night-day-swiftly-key-blood.html

Will Tim Ferriss’ 30g of protein at breakfast help you lose weight? 

You’ve probably heard that dietary adage about getting 30g of protein at breakfast to help manage your appetite.  Tim Ferriss popularised in his Four Hour Body and recently reiterated in this video.

But does more protein at breakfast actually help you manage your hunger and keep you satisfied?

To understand whether protein at breakfast helps with satiety, we plotted the proportion of daily calories eaten at breakfast versus the % goal calories logged for half a million days of MyFitnessPal data.

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If someone recorded less than 100% it means that they successfully consumed less than their goal calorie intake for the day.  However, if they logged more than 100%, for whatever reason, they overshot their calorie goal.

This plot has a ton of scatter, but we can see towards the top left of the chart that a lower protein intake aligns with overeating.  Towards the lower right of the chart, we see that higher protein intake at breakfast aligns with decrease intake across the day.  Interestingly, foods with more protein tend to correspond to a higher nutrient density (i.e. more vitamins and minerals per calorie).

To help make sense of all the data we broke it up into a number of ‘buckets’ and took the average for each as shown by the dots in the chart below.

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It seems that the people who ate the least protein at breakfast (left-hand side of the chart) ended up eating the most across the entire day.  While the people who ate the most protein at breakfast were more likely to consume less.

Interestingly, there seems to be an inflection point when you consume more than 11% of your daily energy intake as protein at breakfast.   Beyond this level, you don’t seem to get a lot more benefit from loading up on more protein.

That is, you get the “minimum effective dose” of protein with 11% of your daily energy intake as protein at breakfast.

The table below shows what this would look like for a typical female and male consuming 1600 and 2000 calories per day respectively.

calories per day

11% of calories

minimum protein at breakfast (g)

female

1600

176

45

male

2000

220

55

So, it seems that the 30g of protein at breakfast thing is true to an extent, it’s just on the low side if your goal is to manage hunger and control your energy intake with less effort.

The “typical female” would need to consume 45g of protein at breakfast to get the minimum effective dose for satiety while the “typical male” would need to consume 55g of protein for breakfast to reach their minimum effective dose of protein to optimise for maximum satiety.

If you’re not typical and want to refine your calculations, you should target 0.8 g/kg lean body mass (or 0.36 g/lb LBM) of protein at breakfast to optimise satiety. This is about a third of the daily protein requirement to optimise maximise satiety across the day shown determined by our previous analysis shown in the chart below.

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So, in summary:

  • Satiety improves with increased protein at breakfast.
  • A low protein intake at breakfast appears to increase your chance of overeating.
  • The minimum effective dose of protein at breakfast appears to be about 11% of your daily calories, approx 45 g for women and 55 g for men or 0.8 g/kg LBM at breakfast.

How many times should you eat a day to lose weight?

Having access to half a million days of MyFitnessPal data to validate and bust dietary myths recently has been a lot of fun (in a nerdy data geek sort of way).

Another obvious question to ask is how many times a day should you eat to reduce your chance of overeating to stay lean, manage diabetes or lose body fat.

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Most MyFitnessPal users seem to log their foods as meals rather than just entering them in one big lump.  And even after we clean up the data, we have nearly four hundred thousand days of data to analyse.

The chart below shows the number of times people said they ate per day versus the percentage of their goal calories that they consumed.

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If someone logged less than 100% of their goal intake for the day, it means that they ate less than their goal intake.  If they recorded more than 100% of their goal, it indicates that they were not able to keep their intake below their target.

The data analysis suggests that:

  • If you ate more than three meals a day, you’re likely to consume more calories than average.
  • One meal a day (OMAD) seems to help you eat less than average. However, the optimum daily meal frequency appears to be two meals if you are looking to maintain a sustained calorie deficit.

The table below shows the numbers that sit behind the graph.

meals per day average calories % target n difference (calories)
1 1283 81% 5,553 -227
2 1244 79% 26,896 -266
3 1403 87% 93,062 -107
average 1510 90% 397,221 0
4 1536 91% 183,346 26
5 1632 93% 59,877 123
6 1730 95% 28,487 220
  •  The majority of people seem to eat four times per day (e.g. three meals and a snack).
  • Eating six times per means you’ll likely to eat around 220 calories per day more on average.
  • Limiting yourself to three meals a day and not snacking will help you cut more than 100 calories per day.
  • Cutting down to two meals a day will, on average, help you cut around 266 calories per day from your diet.

Why is it so?

Some people recommend keeping the metabolic fire soaked with lots of small meals.  However, the data confirms that most people aren’t able to restrain themselves if given the opportunity to eat frequently.

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A recent study by Satchin Panda tracked via a smartphone app and found that the 10% of people who ate the least frequently actually ate 3.3 times per day!   The top 10% of people ate more than ten times per day.  As shown in the ‘feedogram’ below, the only time people didn’t eat was while sleeping.  People typically met their calorie needs for weight maintenance by 6:36 pm but kept on eating until they got to sleep at 11 or 12 o’clock.

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Perhaps one meal a day doesn’t work so well because you are SOOOO hungry by the time you get to eat that you keep on eating and eating and eating; more than you would if you weren’t as hungry when you started eating.  And if you are at home with unlimited access to the fridge and cupboard from dinner time until you go to bed, you can still get a lot of food in!

It’s likely that you would find it difficult to get as much high-satiety protein in one large meal compared two smaller meals.  To get all your daily calories in one sitting you’ll probably need to reach for more energy dense, lower nutrient density lower protein foods.

Perhaps three meals a day doesn’t work so well because we have more opportunities to eat than we really need, especially at home in front of the TV with unlimited access to the fridge and cupboard that are often stacked with low protein comfort foods.

Two meals per day is a nice balance that enables us to eat satiating nutrient-dense whole food meals while still providing a significant fasting window during which time the body is able to practice drawing on our fat reserves.

It’s also easier psychologically because you’re not always thinking about food and restrict your intake.  You eat well in the allotted time and then get on with your day, knowing that you have had the food you need.

What about insulin resistance?

To be clear, as discussed in detail in this article, I’m not saying that reducing meal frequency works because it reduces insulin which leads to fat loss without regard to energy intake.   Limiting your opportunities to eat by compressing your eating window is merely a great hack to manage your energy intake.  This, in turn, leads to a reduction in body fat levels, lower insulin levels and reversal of diabetes.

Which two meals?

So by now, you’re probably wondering “If you’re going to eat only two meals per day, which two meals should they be?”

The table below shows a summary of the data for people who logged two meals per day.

meal combination goal (cals) total (cals) meal 1 (cals) meal 2 (cals) % target n
breakfast + lunch 1541 1100 423 677 72% 9041
lunch + dinner 1608 1234 561 672 78% 4935
dinner + breakfast 1575 1328 521 807 85% 4072
average 1575 1221 502 719 78% 18048

The chart comparing the three scenarios is shown below.  The analysis of the data suggests that:

  • The combination of breakfast and lunch is the stand out winner if your goal is to eat less.
  • Though not as good as the breakfast + lunch combo, combining our meals closer together at lunch and dinner seems to also be beneficial.
  • The worst outcome is for the two meals spread apart at breakfast and dinner.

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If you chose to cut down to two meals per day then consuming them as breakfast and lunch may help you cut around 200 calories per day (or 17%) of your intake compared to consuming breakfast and dinner.

Summary

The table below shows the scenarios sorted from smallest intake to largest.

meal frequency average (cals) % target n delta
breakfast + lunch 1,100 72% 9,041 -410
lunch + dinner 1,234 78% 4,935 -276
one meal a day 1,283 81% 5,553 -227
dinner + breakfast 1,328 85% 4,072 -182
three meals a day 1,403 87% 93,062 -107
four meals 1,536 91% 183,346 +26
five meals 1,632 93% 59,877 +123
six meals 1,730 95% 28,487 +220

This chart shows the comparison of meal scenarios in terms of calories per day.

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Whether you view it as restricting opportunities for overeating or better alignment with your natural circadian rhythm (or a bit of both), it seems that limiting your feeding window to earlier in the day (eTRF) is potentially a useful way to manage your food intake.