Want to avoid the freshman 15? The key may be keeping a regular eating schedule, as new research suggests eating meals later on the weekends than during the week could lead to weight gain.
Nutritionists and health nuts have long known that when it comes to keeping off extra weight, “when” you eat can matter as much as “what” you eat. Eating all of your food between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., for example, is a proven way to shed and keep off pounds, as bodies understand calories differently depending on what time it is.
What hadn’t been explored, until this study, was whether disruptions to the regularity of meal time — like swapping breakfast for brunch — could also lead to weight gain.
During the week, people generally have a routine. And as a result, they may eat their meals at roughly the same times each day. On weekends, however, days are typically less structured and people tend to wake up and go to bed later, which often postpones and irregulates the times they eat their meals. The researchers refer to this habit as “eating jet lag.”
To conduct their study, the researchers surveyed more than 1,100 college students in Spain and Mexico to find what time they were eating their meals on weekends compared to weekdays.
While nearly two-thirds of the students showed more than one hour of eating jet lag on the weekends, the ones most at risk of gaining weight were those who waited more than 3.5 hours to eat their meals.
In essence, the longer the students postponed their weekend meals, the more at-risk they were of packing on the pounds. According to the researchers, the results weren’t related to what the students ate, how much they exercised or any specific sleeping habits, and were independent of age, nationality and gender.
“Our results show changing the timing of the three meals during the weekend is linked to obesity. The highest impact on the BMI (Body Mass Index) could occur when there is a 3.5-hour difference in eating schedules,” María Fernanda Zerón Rugerio, a co-author of the study from the University of Barcelona (UB), said in a news release.
The researchers explained that the reason people may gain weight when eating outside of their normal schedule is because they are disrupting their biological clocks. For example, if someone’s body is used to eating meals at 8 a.m., 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day, that’s when it will prepare itself to effectively metabolize that food.
“Our biological clock is like a machine, and is ready to unchain the same physiological and metabolic response at the same time of the day, every day of the week. Fixed eating and sleep schedules help the body to be organized and promote energy homeostasis. Therefore, people with a higher alteration of their schedules have a higher risk of obesity,” Trinitat Cambras, a lead author of the study from UB’s Department of Biochemistry and Physiology, said in the news release.
Though, when it comes to staying trim, fit and healthy, the researchers noted that maintaining regular eating habits is just one piece to the puzzle, with the other key components being diet and exercise.
They also noted that more research is needed to investigate the impact of irregular eating on weight fluctuation over time.
“Variability in eating schedules during weekends compared to week days can happen chronically during someone’s life,” the researchers concluded. “Future studies should evaluate the effect of this chronic variability through the eating jet lag, on the evolution of weight.”
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Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.