Shift your meal times to shift some fat

Subjects who changed meal times lost an average of twice the body fat as the control group.

Subjects who changed meal times lost an average of twice the body fat as the control group. Photo: Getty

With more of us fighting the bulge, but challenged to exercise and eat healthy, we’re all on the lookout for that holy grail of weight loss.

While that hasn’t yet been discovered, researchers have discovered what may be a surprising and potentially easy way to reduce body fat – shifting our meal times.

The strategy, based on restricting eating hours, involves eating breakfast a bit later in the day and dinner earlier. Time restricted feeding, known by the trendy buzzword TRF, is a form of intermittent fasting and is being looked at seriously by science as a weight loss and health approach.

In a small, pilot study by the University of Surrey, (published August in the Journal of Nutritional Sciences), participants were divided into two groups with different meal times. One group was asked to delay their regular breakfast time by 90 minutes and move dinner earlier by 90 minutes.

The second (control) group was told to dine at their usual times. Both groups were encouraged to eat whatever they wanted so long as it was within the window of time given.

After 10 weeks, those who’d changed their meal times had lost an average of twice as much body fat as those for whom mealtimes were ‘business as usual’.

According to Dr Rona Antoni, a research fellow in Nutritional Metabolism at the University of Surrey involved in the research, the study “provides early encouragement that simple modification to meal timing, rather than having to change food types, could be a useful strategy for many people”.

So, why and how does TRF work?

By studying participants’ food journals, the researchers discovered that those that changed their meal times had decreased their total daily food intake.

They attributed this to a couple of things.

Firstly, by literally having less time to eat, the study participants had a longer daily fast than the control group, Dr Antoni said.

They also ate less.

“Participants ‘accidentally’ cut calories despite being asked to try to eat the same amount of food,” Dr Antoni said. In feedback, 57 per cent said they ate less due to either reduced appetite, less opportunity, and less snacking, particularly in the evening.

Another hypothesis, according to Dr Antoni, is that they lost body fat by concentrating their energy intake into the times of the day when their bodies were best able to metabolise it. “Separate, but related data suggest that limiting evening energy consumption is beneficial,” Dr Antoni explained.

But she also concluded that it is “possibly a combination of the above”.

Sounds simple. But, how easy is it to follow?

Feedback from those in the study suggested eating within such reduced parameters wasn’t realistic due to lifestyle and work factors.

About 43 per cent said they’d consider continuing with the program only if the eating times were more flexible. The rest thought it was too hard to follow.

“In order for this to be a realistic long term strategy it would need to be more flexible,” Dr Antoni said, adding that their study was the first on TRF to report feasibility data. She suggests practicing TRF for five out of seven days of the week – which allows people to socialise after hours – and for those working, starting dinner a bit later.

Another downside was that some participants admitted to eating less healthy and buying fast food snacks in order to eat within the defined meal times.

While the technique has been successful in mice, researchers are yet to find the best way to apply it to humans, Dr Antoni admitted.

In the meantime, exercise, calorie restriction and a healthy diet continue to be the best ways to lose weight. However, as another method for limiting our daily calorie intake, TRF could be another tool in the kit.

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