Eat Early, Shed Weight, Spanish Study Says

Eat your big meal early, new research says.Now you're not only what you eat, but when you eat.

That's according to a new study that says eating lunch as your main meal of the day, early--before 3pm, in fact--could help you lose weight.

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The study, just published in the International Journal of Obesity, and carried out by researchers at Spain's University of Murcia, Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and Tufts University in Medford, Mass, included 420 overweight men and women who lived in the Spanish seaside town of Murcia. All were monitored for 20 weeks while restricting their calorie intake to about 1,400 a day.

What researchers found was this: On average, those who ate lunch early in the day lost 22 pounds, compared with the late eaters, who lost 17 pounds--an important 5-pound difference. (It's important to note that, in Spain, lunch is the main meal of the day.)

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"This was the first long-term large-scale study to really demonstrate that the timing of meals can predict weight-loss effectiveness," said one of the study's authors Frank Scheer, director of the Medical Chronobiology Program and associate neuroscientist at the hospital Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. But it all makes sense, Scheer told Allison Aubrey on NPR, and that the effects of sleep and biological clocks have long been known to affect weight regulation in animals.

"When the timing of meals doesn't match with the sleep-wave cycle, there is a disconnect between the different clocks we have in, basically, all the cells in our body," he explained to Aubrey.

The study's biggest surprise may not be in its conclusion--dieters have heard for years that they should avoid eating late at night--but at how clear the conclusion appears to be. Eating earlier represented the only real difference between the dieters, who were split into two groups based on whether they were early or late eaters. Not even differences in exercise, hunger levels or sleep habits seemed to make much of an impact.

The study also found that late eaters were more "evening types," and that they skipped or skimped on breakfast more frequently that early eaters.

While shifting to an early feast may not be too difficult for folks in Spain, where the main meal of the day happens to be lunch, it could take a bit more work here in the U.S., where the largest meal of the day tends is dinner.

"What the study does is that it emphasizes that we should start thinking not only about what we eat but also when we eat," Scheer noted. "It may be that we can improve, using this novel concept, existing dietary interventions in the battle against obesity."

Dining on a big spread in the middle of the day doesn't sound half bad, actually--as long as we'd get to take naps afterward, of course.

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