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The most important meal of the day

Posted Jun 11 2010 12:00am
Breakfast, right?

As is so often the case with nutrition, it depends on you.

After my previous post, where I said that lunch should ideally be the largest meal of the day, a number of readers wrote asking me to explain further (maybe recollecting that old adage, “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”). So today: more about lunch.

Some people (myself included) wake up with strong appetites. But other folks don’t feel like eating a lot first thing in the morning. Frequently, this makes sense. You’re rushing around trying to get people out the door. Your adrenaline is pumping. The fight-or-flight hormones are coursing through your body. Eating a big meal at a time like this would be counterproductive - the food wouldn’t be properly digested.

So a lighter breakfast is perfectly OK, provided you’re not just eating empty processed carbs (in other words, the typical American on-the-go breakfast of a muffin or bagel). Instead, when you’re in a hurry, choose a green smoothie, a bowl of yogurt and fruit, or whole-grain crackers with peanut butter and sliced banana - whatever works best for your body, as long as it contains protein, healthy fat, and other nutrients to carry you through your busy morning.

Now on to lunch. Interestingly, folk wisdom from other cultures often recognizes that our metabolism is at its strongest at mid-day. In the Ayurvedic tradition, for example, it’s believed that digestive “fire” peaks at around noon. Not coincidentally, this is the time when you’re likely to be most active and need the most fuel.

Unfortunately, our schedules usually aren’t set up to accommodate a hearty, healthy lunch. So, again, we often grab something convenient and processed. Or, if we’re trying to lose weight, we skimp on lunch and eat a salad with diet dressing.

Usually we’re so busy and stressed that it’s easy to ignore our hunger pangs, or not even feel them at all. It’s when we get home and finally relax that our appetites get a chance to assert themselves.

For some people, the grazing begins the moment they walk in the door. Other people manage to prepare and eat a nice moderately-sized dinner, but then start snacking afterward and can’t stop.

Nutritional theories, both ancient and modern, tend to agree on this point: it’s not a good idea to eat your largest meal at night, just a few hours before going to bed. By then your metabolism is slowing down and preparing for rest. While you’re asleep, your digestive system essentially sleeps, too. Nutrients aren't well absorbed and calories don't get burned. You’re likely to wake up feeling groggy, sluggish, and not in the mood for breakfast. And so the cycle starts over.

I’ve said this before (see my post " Eat Early, Eat Often "), but it bears repeating: the only way to stop nighttime overeating is to find the time and space in your day - whether it’s first thing in the morning or somewhere in the middle - to sit down, unplug, and eat a full-sized, leisurely meal.

What time works best for your most important meal of the day?
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