Emerging research suggests that the combination of skipping breakfast and eating at night could have negative consequences for your health.
Does it matter if you skip breakfast? What if you eat dinner late? I’ve tackled these topics separately before, and the answer, as with so many things, is that it depends. One factor is what food you’re eating. But newer research is finding that the combination of skipping breakfast and eating at night could be a one-two punch against your health.
Back in 2014, some interesting research out of Japan found two types of breakfast skippers — breakfast skippers who eat dinner at a normal time, and breakfast skippers who eat dinner late. Breakfast skipping alone has been shown to increase your blood sugar over the course of the day, because our blood sugar control is naturally better in the morning, so it makes sense to eat a larger meal then. Skipping breakfast and then eating a late dinner is worse, because it significantly increases your odds of developing metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome means having three or more of a cluster of conditions: increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, high triglycerides and large waist circumference. It’s a major risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes or heart disease.
So why does skipping breakfast and eating a late dinner create problems? It essentially shifts the bulk of your daily food intake into the later part of the day, which can interfere with the synchronization of your circadian rhythms. We have two circadian clocks: one central clock that’s influenced by the daily light-dark cycle; and peripheral clocks that are influenced by events of daily life, especially eating (our “feast-fast cycle”). If your central and peripheral clocks are out of sync, they send conflicting messages to your body about whether it needs to ramp up or wind down, leading to metabolic problems.
Research strongly suggests that if you can manage it, shifting the majority of your food intake to breakfast and lunch, making breakfast the largest meal if possible, and eating a small dinner has several advantages, including decreased hunger. This eating pattern has also been shown in a handful of studies to improve blood sugar control, and even increase ovulation in women with polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that can impair fertility. I have some patients who ask me if it’s weird that they prefer to eat dinner by 5 p.m. I assure them that it’s quite the opposite.
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Of course, that eating pattern is not practical for many of us — especially those who work outside the home. So what’s a “second best” eating pattern? Simply eating breakfast and lunch consistently can be a good place to start. Skipping one or both of these early meals — a pattern I witness surprisingly often — can lead to compensatory overeating, sometimes even bingeing, in the evening.
Who’s skipping breakfast and eating a late dinner? Here are two classic examples. One is the working parent hustling kids out the door in the morning and shuttling them to extracurricular activities after work. They either don’t have a job where they can eat breakfast at their desk, or they haven’t had the bandwidth to plan what to bring or buy. Another example of someone skipping breakfast and dining late? The retiree, who sleeps in late, doesn’t eat a first meal until lunchtime, then delays dinner because they’re tired of cooking, haven’t planned what to make, or get distracted by other activities. Some of these circumstances aren’t modifiable, but others are — and in the interest of self-care and possibly better health, it’s worth figuring out which is which.