The Best Time to Eat Lunch to Maintain a Healthy Weight, According to Experts

|Updated Mar 28, 2022
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Everyone knows the importance of eating breakfast, but new evidence suggests that lunch may just be the most strategic meal of the day, especially when it's timed right. Lunch helps our bodies keep blood sugar steady, important for maintaining a healthy weight. In essence, think of lunch as the best way to prevent eating too many calories later in the day, which is linked to weight gain and other health complications.

According to a study in the journal Nutrients, eating later is triggers a cascade of unhealthy events in the body that can contribute to weight gain. “Unusual eating time can produce a disruption in the circadian system that might lead to unhealthy consequences,” citing “several mechanisms that may be implicated in the obesogenic effect of eating late.”

So when should you eat for weight loss?

The study showed that it's healthier to eat more calories earlier in the day since eating in the later hours has been correlated with increased fat gain.

Traditionally, ancient cultures across the world have eaten lighter and earlier, often just before or as the sun sets and it gets too dark to cook or clean up. As modern technology (electricity) made it possible to eat later, our bodies adapted by getting larger.

Yet our bodies are still accustomed to eating with the rhythms of the sun, which means the healthiest way to eat is during daylight hours, and not after dark. The authors of the study note, “We found that eating the main meal late (after 3 p.m.), was predictive of difficulty in weight loss.

"In addition, the distribution of energy intake across meals may be an important factor. Those subjects assigned to a small breakfast and a large dinner lost significantly less weight than those assigned to a large breakfast and a small dinner.”

Eat early, not late, for weight loss

Public health nutritionist Tracye McQuirter, founder of 10 Million Vegan Black Women, suggests that the best time of day to eat for optimal health is earlier in the day. "What I suggest is that people eat several smaller meals throughout the day as opposed to focusing on three big meals," she explains. "When I am helping people talking about this is to concentrate on smaller meals rather than three big meals, this is what I suggest:"

Breakfast: Green smoothie or oatmeal

Lunch: A veggie-packed wrap, soup, or salad

Mid-afternoon snack: Hummus and crackers or fruit and nuts

Dinner: Light stir-fry over black rice or pasta noodles

Post-dinner snack: Fruit

Should the largest meal be lunch?

Instead of thinking about the largest meal being anything, she says, that language isn't a helpful way to think. "You don’t really want to have a large meal in the middle of the day. You just want to have a sustaining meal.

"You want to have a meal that nourishes you but doesn’t make you tired and sluggish. And if you know that you’re maybe having a snack — fruit, crackers, or nuts in a couple of hours, then you don’t have to think of it as ‘I have lunch at 1 p.m., and I’m not going to eat again until dinner, So it’s got to hold me 5 or 6 hours. Because you are going to have a snack in between that time."

What to eat when

Eat a sustaining amount of calories in the middle of the day, to prevent blood sugar from spiking or insulin from surging. Those lead to weight gain. So the best time to eat lunch is 12 or 1 p.m. but then stop eating early, so your body has a chance to burn off calories as you sleep.

"Dark leafy greens are the healthiest foods to have all day, followed by fruit. So, I recommend that people try to have dark, leafy greens two to three times a day.

Around the world what we would consider a typical lunch or dinner is eaten for breakfast. Here's how:

  • Green smoothie in the morning
  • Salad at lunch
  • Sauté for dinner
  • Add fruit throughout the day.
  • Cucumbers, tomatoes are technically a fruit

You know you can have oatmeal for breakfast, it’s a whole grain—but you can have quinoa as well. You can have chia seed bowls for breakfast.

"Morning is the time to have a lot of water with some lemon juice or lime juice because it can help with digestion for the rest of the day," she adds.

Drink a couple of glasses of water – with lemon or just plain— when you wake up.  Then have a smoothie or fresh fruit (some berries, some apples) to help with digestion more than other foods do. The goal is to eliminate when you wake up in the morning. And so having water, pieces of fresh fruit, or even a smoothie will help you do that.

Bottom Line: Eat a nutrient-packed lunch to help maintain a healthy weight.

Instead of waiting to eat your largest meal in the evening, get more calories at lunch and think of meals as "sustaining" your energy throughout the day, in order to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.