Weight Loss: This is when you should eat your lightest and heaviest meals of the day

We’ve been told to only eat carbs in the morning, or to try intermittent fasting, or to make sure we only eat certain snacks at night.

When it comes to weight loss, we’ve heard so many different rules, it’s a little exhausting.

Some people say you can eat whatever you want as long as you hit around 1,200 calories a day, others say throw out calorie counting, just eat whatever you want as long as the foods are “clean.” The diets get even more crazy when you throw timing into the mix. We’ve been told to only eat carbs in the morning, or to try intermittent fasting, or to make sure we only eat certain snacks at night. It can all feel so contradictory and leave your head spinning.

While we're at it, here's another question for you: Which meal should be the smallest of the day? Are we better off eating six small, similarly-sized meals throughout each day? Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day? We’ve been told the French eat lunch as their longest and heaviest meal of the day and they look pretty great. We set out to find an absolute answer, consulting both experts and research. Here's what we found:

What The Research Says

Have you ever had a crazy day at work that involved a skipped breakfast and skimpy leftovers at your desk? After a full day of activity and little eating, you come home completely ravenous and feel as though you could eat your entire kitchen. That pattern of consuming all your calories at night can leave you feeling awful, and for good reason, according to science.

According to one study, those who eat most of their calories in the evening hours, during a delayed lunchtime of approximately 4 p.m., may have poor blood sugar metabolism, which could over time lead to insulin resistance issues and weight gain.

Another study published in Pharmacological Research found that participants who ate more calories at breakfast experienced greater weight loss than those who ate the majority of their calories at dinner. Researchers concluded from the observational study that there was a “negative impact of later meal timing and calories distribution on body weight and metabolism.”

Additionally, many reviews suggest that “light” and “heavy” meals can be categorized beyond mere calorie count. One review suggests that consuming 20 to 40 grams (where you fall in the range depends on weight) of high-quality protein every three to four hours is the most supportive of muscle protein synthesis, a process that aids in muscle repair and growth. Additionally, this type of eating promoted improved body composition. As we’ve learned before, a body composed of more muscle and less fat is more likely to have a higher metabolism, which would help with weight loss.

This sentiment was echoed in a study from the journal Steroids that suggested your “heavy” meal of breakfast should contain both protein and carbohydrates in order to support a healthy weight.

What The Experts Say

“I think the rule to follow is that your heavier, in terms of caloric value, should be prior to the most active times of your day so you have energy for your workout or whatever your activity is,” says Albert Matheny, R.D., C.S.C.S, nutritional advisor to Promix Nutrition and co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab. “The lightest meal of the day should be when you are the least active, for most people this is dinner before bed.”

The reasoning behind this is that food is designed to give you energy, he says. This energy can be used to fuel activity or recovery from activity (muscular repair and/or muscle glycogen replenishment). However, if you eat in excess of these needs, it will only result in an increase in your blood sugar and then excess calories will be stored as fat, he says.

Agreeing with the research, Matheny says that it’s extra important to make sure you are consuming enough protein post-workout to keep your metabolism functioning well and aid in muscle recovery, as these are keys to long-term health and weight maintenance/loss.

“I never like to say that there are really any strict rules to eating including timing of meals and what to eat when,” says Jaime Mass, R.D. “However, there is certainly some interesting and fairly strong science to consider when it comes to portion control, meal size, nutrient intake and time of day.”

Based on scientific research, it’s wise to consume the majority of your calories earlier throughout the day, she says. This is not to suggest eating only before a certain time or to stop eating after half the day has passed, but rather to eat meals that are increasingly less calorie dense as the day goes on. That doesn’t mean you can’t have your dark chocolate in the evening—you should if you want it—but it’s how much you consume that makes the difference.

The Bottom Line

Of course you should listen to your body and eat when you’re hungry, but research and experts agree that eating a huge meal right before bed doesn’t make much sense since your body won’t be burning anything off while you’re sleeping. Instead, stick to nutritionally balanced meals that get smaller as your activity level lessens.