A study in Spain showed people who ate lunch before 3 p.m. lost more weight than people who had lunch later.
Want to lose weight? Eating lunch earlier rather than later may help you out.
Dieters who ate early lunches tended to lose more weight than those who had their midday meal on the later side, according to a Spanish study published in the International Journal of Obesity.
The finding doesn't prove that bumping up your lunch hour will help you shed that extra weight, but it is possible that eating times play a role in how the body regulates its weight, researchers said.
"We should now seriously start to consider the timing of food — not just what we eat, but also when we eat," said study co-author Frank Scheer, from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
His group's research included 420 people attending nutrition clinics in southeast Spain. Along with going to regular group therapy sessions with nutrition and exercise counseling, dieters measured, weighed and recorded their food and reported on their daily physical activity.
Study participants were on a so-called Mediterranean diet, in which about 40 percent of each day's calories are consumed at lunch. About half of the people said they ate lunch before 3 p.m. and half after.
Over 20 weeks of counseling, early and late lunchers ate a similar amount of food, based on their food journals, and burned a similar amount of calories through daily activities.
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However, early eaters lost an average of 22 lbs. — just over 11 percent of their starting weight — while late eaters dropped 17 lbs., or 9 percent of their initial weight.
What time dieters ate breakfast or dinner wasn't linked to their ultimate weight loss.
One limitation of the study is that the researchers didn't randomly assign people to eat early or late, so it's possible there were other underlying differences between dieters with different mealtimes. Certain gene variants that have been linked to obesity were more common in late lunchers, for example.
People who eat later may have extra food in their stomach when they go to sleep, which could mean more of it isn't burned and ends up being stored as fat, said Yunsheng Ma, a nutrition researcher from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.
How often people eat during the day and whether they bring food from home or eat out may also contribute to weight loss, added Ma, who wasn't involved in the new research.
He said any implications of late eating could be exacerbated among people in the United States.
"The pattern of consumption of meals is very different in the U.S.," Ma told Reuters Health. Many people skip breakfast or lunch, then end up overdoing it on calories at dinner.
Scheer said that in the United States, where dinner is typically the biggest meal, researchers would expect people who eat later dinners to have more trouble losing weight based on his team's findings.
Regardless of exact mealtimes, Ma said it's important for people to spread their calories out through the day.
"Have a good breakfast and a good lunch, and at dinner, people should eat lightly," he said.
Reporting from New York by Genevra Pittman at Reuters Health
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