Growing up in the U.S., we were given some pretty bad advice about when to eat. The most recent research suggests that the old advice given to Americans was exactly opposite to what our bodies really need. Specifically, these two outdated quips:
- Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
- You should eat several smaller meals throughout the day rather than 2 or 3 bigger meals.
Wrong and wrong. Looking to our Italian friends who follow a traditional Mediterranean Diet, we can see how this plays out during a typical day in their lives.
Bad Advice About When to Eat
Breakfast Is the Most Important Meal
While breakfast is arguably “important,” it is not the “most” important, nor should it be the biggest or most calorie-rich meal of your day.
In Italy, la prima colazione is really quite a simple thing and the biggest blunder that you can make is to overdo it. In the U.S., even if bacon and eggs are no longer our standard fare (who has time to cook in the morning anymore?), we still manage to horse down a sizeable portion of fat, sugar, and empty calories with our industrial breakfast cereals, bagels with cream cheese, and Frappuccino Macchiato with an extra pump of caramel sauce. This would be a huge—possibly fatal— shock to an Italian’s constitution.
Further, Italians would argue that you shouldn’t eat anything at all when you first get up. In their view, your stomach simply isn’t ready for such a bombardment just a few minutes after waking. Our bodies need to slowly adjust to being awake and that includes your metabolism and internal organs. You wouldn’t leap out of bed and run a marathon, would you? No, you’d have to warm up, stretch, prepare—and only then are you ready for more taxing activities.
So if not a “healthy” breakfast of bacon and eggs, then what? A stack of buckwheat pancakes, a trough of steel-cut oatmeal, a bran muffin the size of a volleyball? Well, no. These so-called healthy options are very calorie dense and therefore aren’t really much better than the Grand Slam breakfast at Denny’s. Because yes, size matters, and in this case, less is more, especially first thing in the morning.
Furthermore, do you really know what’s in that “healthy” muffin? It’s been wrapped in cellophane and sitting on top of the counter at your local Starbucks for weeks, and yet it looks as fresh as the day it was made. What’s wrong with that picture? Food is supposed to (eventually) go bad, and if it doesn’t, then you know for sure it’s loaded with chemicals that you can’t pronounce.
What you really want—or rather, what your stomach wants—is just something small and understated. You’ll need a few calories, of course, to nudge your metabolism into action, but overdoing it is a much worse mistake than underdoing it, so always err on the lighter side for breakfast. In Italy, breakfast is often only a caffè macchiato (espresso with just a “spot” of milk).
Then if you want breakfast, have something to eat around 10:00 a.m. And even then, make it fairly light. Fruit, whole wheat toast (made with bread from a bakery, not the middle aisle of the supermarket), or treat yourself, occasionally, to a small cornetto!
Eat Several Smaller Meals Throughout the Day
In Mediterranean countries, LUNCH is/was the biggest meal. Back in the day, the husband/father would come home from work around 1:00-1:30, the kids would come home from school, and at about 2:00, mamma would put out a 3-4 course meal that included lots of grains, vegetables, a little bit of pasta (on most days), a little bit of meat (on some days), perhaps a dessert, or just some fruits and nuts.
Everyone (even the older kids, usually) would have one small glass of wine. Water, of course, too, but never soft drinks, fruit juices, or milk with the meal. An espresso coffee only after the entire meal was finished. Then they’d all rest, or even nap, before returning to their afternoon duties around 4:00.
Yes, that’s a nostalgic view, and when it was at its peak, it was the very model of what we think of today as the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle. Alas, even in Italy these days, this idealized version of the daily routine is quickly disappearing in favor of a “productive” workday and the Global Industrial Diet.
The outdated (American) thinking was that eating “constantly” throughout the day was a good way to level out your blood glucose levels. Well, that maybe true if you’re eating highly-processed foods that are high in refined sugar and saturated fats. But if you’re eating healthy vegetables, slow carbs, and drinking only water, then this is unnecessary, not to mention impractical.
Most importantly: are you even hungry or are you just snacking out of habit? So much of our eating is habitual. Not only how often we eat, but how much we eat, and indeed, what we eat. Even our food preferences can be retrained towards healthier choices. When we eat processed food-like substances, it spikes our blood glucose levels, making us feel hungrier sooner than it should. So we munch on more junk, then the unhealthy cycle repeats all day long.
Finally it should be mentioned that, from an evolution point of view, our bodies are trained to handle food scarcity. What is “new” and different is our current state of abundance and availability. This is the condition that our metabolism can’t properly handle. Maybe in a few thousand years, our bodies will adapt to this modern state, but for now, we’re better suited to deal with the occasional famine than a constant feast.
From an evolution point of view, our bodies are trained to handle food scarcity. What is “new” and different is our current state of abundance & availability. We’re adapted to deal with the occasional famine, NOT a constant feast
Current Advice on Time-Restricted Eating
The modern notion of Time-Restricted Eating, or often called “Intermittent Fasting,” hasn’t been around as long, but is quickly gaining popularity. The typical American eats over a 15-hour window, which is essentially the entire time we are awake. In time restricted eating, you eat during a smaller time window. There are different variations, such as the 12:12 or 16:8 plan, which refers to fasting for 12 hours and eating during a 12-hour window, or fasting for 16 hours and eating during an 8-hour window.
This is the easiest type of "fasting" because you are not restricting your calories—just the period during which you eat them. This essentially amounts to a “mini-fast” every day. (Then, not coincidentally, your first meal of the following day is when you “break” your “fast.” Breakfast. Get it?)
One scenario would be to eat breakfast at 10 am and lunch at 2 pm and make sure you last meal of the day is as early as possible (finished by 7 pm), so you have 15 hours or more between dinner and breakfast. Little or no snacking between meals.
If you want to learn more about this approach, check out this book:
What to Eat When: A Strategic Plan to Improve Your Health and Life Through Food by Michael Roizen and Michael Crupain
This might all seem a bit extreme to some Americans, but actually this “new” research is very much consistent with the traditional Mediterranean Diet of 100+ years ago. Here's what you need to know...
Time-restricted eating is a dietary strategy that focuses on when you eat, rather than what you eat.
By limiting your daily food intake to a shorter period of time, it may be possible to eat less food and lose weight.
What’s more, some research has shown that time-restricted eating may benefit heart health and blood sugar levels.