“Eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch, and a pauper at dinner.” The royal refrain has long been preached by healthy eating experts as one of the best ways to eat for maintaining a healthy metabolism, digestion, and overall health. The advice came up yet again in a recent Ask Me Anything in Well+Good’s Cook With Us Facebook group with Food: What The Heck Should I Cook? author Mark Hyman, MD. The resounding message: big breakfast, good. Big dinner, not so good.
Normally I’m all about taking healthy eating advice from experts—but I have to admit, this didn’t seem like the most realistic thing to me. Our culture is not structured to accommodate this kind of eating schedule. Mornings are rushed—many people don’t even eat breakfast at all—and dinner is about socializing just as much as it is about eating. Even if it is more nutritious, it doesn’t seem very doable. But for the sake of better health, I decided to try reversing my meal sizes for a week and see what it was like.
Why healthy eating experts want Americans to reverse their meal sizes
Before getting started, I reached out to Dr. Hyman as well as registered dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, RDN for more intel on the merits of eating your largest meal at the beginning of the day (and your smallest meal at the end of the day). “The more in alignment we eat with our circadian rhythms, the better,” Dr. Hyman says, referring to the body’s internal clock that impacts bodily functions and behavior. If scientific studies are any indiction, blood sugar control is best in the mornings when we first wake up and worse at night; the body also burns calories more efficiently earlier in the day. Thus, experts like Dr. Hyman argue that it’s better to consume the bulk of your daily food intake earlier in the day (like at a big breakfast), when your body can better metabolize it.
“That first meal you eat of the day is absolutely the most important meal of the day, and most research shows that consuming a bulk of your calories earlier in the day rather than later can be beneficial for your overall health,” Dr. Hyman says. Plus, Kirkpatrick says that a big breakfast can keep you fuller for longer, which can help curb excessive snacking or food intake later in the day.
As for dinner, one study found that keeping the meal on the small side and earlier in the evening was linked to boosting metabolism and also a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Dr. Hyman also points out that it takes work for the body to digest food, so if you eat a heavy dinner, your digestive tract will have to work overtime when it should be using night hours to rest. (Yes, even your gut needs its beauty sleep.)
“Unfortunately, what most people do is skip breakfast, then maybe have a sandwich for lunch, and then they have a huge dinner when their body is least capable of handling it. This can lead to imbalanced blood sugar, poor sleep, weight gain, and more,” says Dr. Hyman.
This all made sense, but I was still a bit unsure of how to pull this off IRL. Luckily, Kirkpatrick had some smart tips. “If [you want breakfast to be your biggest meal], I would advise about 25 grams of protein, moderate fiber from low-glycemic load fruits such as berries or from sprouted grain toast, and healthy fats like avocado or nut butters,” she says. She says you can accomplish this with avocado toast with a veggie-egg scramble on the side, or with oatmeal topped with nut butter and fruit.
For lunch—the second biggest meal of the day—Kirkpatrick suggests salad with lean protein mixed in, or a soup full of hearty protein, like lentils. (Not much different than what I already have mid-day.) And for dinner, she suggests a protein shake or a serving of spaghetti squash with tomato sauce, both much smaller than the usual after-work feasts I typically cook myself. Dr. Hyman’s dinner ideas include a palm-sized cooked protein of choice with veggies on the side.
Check out the video below for tips on how to eat to feel energized, not sluggish:
How eating from biggest meal to smallest meal worked for me
Normally for breakfast, I typically just have an oat milk latte. So on day one of my experiment, I paired my latte with a plate of scrambled eggs, avocado, and spinach—which I got up 15 minutes earlier than usual to make so I could still eat at my usual breakfast time at 8:30 a.m.
Normally I’m ravenous by noon (oat milk lattes, as you can imagine, aren’t super filling), so I usually have a big salad with chicken or tofu as well as some sort of snack afterwards, like trail mix. But because I ate such a big breakfast, I was still full even at 2 p.m. I reached into my snack stash for a Hilo Life low-carb snack mix which I ate, but honestly wasn’t hungry enough for a bigger meal.
By the time dinner rolled around, I was hungry, but not excessively so. I heated up some leftover sweet potato nachos, which were made with roasted sweet potatoes, black beans, and cheese. The serving was smaller than what I’d normally have for dinner, but left me comfortably full. Still, I felt the urge to keep eating—not because I was hungry, but because, I realized, eating in the evening has become my go-to way to unwind and destress. I ended up making a bowl of popcorn to munch on.
The next day for breakfast, I made oatmeal topped with nut butter and berries per Kirkpatrick’s suggestion. It really was filling and when lunchtime rolled around, my stomach wasn’t rumbling yet. Still, I wanted to do better than yesterday, so I blended a Daily Harvest smoothie and ate another Hilo Life snack pack on the side. Around 7 p.m. I was only moderately hungry, so I had bone broth with a side of Dr. Praeger’s kale bites. I was honestly surprised that this small, simple meal filled me up. This time, I stopped myself from snacking out of boredom and instead brewed myself a cup of tea and focused on finishing my book club book. So far, the biggest lesson I was learning was how to actually listen to my body—instead of just mindlessly snacking to unwind—and what is really feels like to be full.
The third day started out well-intentioned, but then went a little off-script for dinner. Despite having a big breakfast and medium-sized lunch, I was really craving a big bowl of pasta—which I honored with a bit of spinach mixed in for extra veggies. The dinner was definitely on the bigger side, but when else would I be able to eat a big bowl of pasta? Dinner is the only time!, I thought to myself.
Another hurdle came on Friday. I woke up knowing I had a glorious night in to enjoy to myself. I typically like to spend these nights either ordering takeout or making myself a big dinner and eating it while watching a movie on the couch. But how would those plans be impacted by this experiment? In cases like these, where life plans or social obligations come up that could make it tricky to stick to this eating schedule, Kirkpatrick had suggested in our interview that I go back to my “normal” way of eating. Since I *knew* this was how I wanted to spend my night, I put her advice into practice. That way, I could enjoy my Friday night dinner as planned.
The weekend was when the experiment was really its easiest. Who doesn’t love starting Saturday off with a big, yummy brunch?
What I learned post-experiment
My week of having my biggest meal for breakfast and smallest meal for dinner taught me two big lessons. One, it’s actually easier than I thought it would be to live this way. Yes, sometimes going big at breakfast means getting up a little earlier, but it otherwise wasn’t as much of a hurdle as I thought it would be. And as long as dinners out with friends are planned out at least 24 hours in advance, I could plan for them. However, I live alone and have total control over what I eat and when I eat it. I could definitely see people who are parents or have to feed more people than just themselves finding this a bit more difficult.
The second major lesson I learned was that for me, eating a lot at night was more linked to comfort than hunger. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with stress or emotional eating, it can be a crutch if over-relied upon. Now, when I reach for a post-dinner snack, I think about why I’m doing it, something I didn’t stop to do before. I didn’t notice any other ways changing my eating habits affected me; it didn’t seem to affect my energy levels or sleep habits at all.
It’s been a few weeks since my experiment and while I did find it beneficial, I have to admit that for the most part, I’ve defaulted back to eating from small to large. Mostly it’s simply because old habits die hard and this is the way I’ve been living for the majority of my life.
But something that I have kept up is putting an end to overeating at dinner—and snacking afterwards. The realization that it doesn’t require that big of a dinner to feel satisfied has stayed with me. Now, I check in with my body more. Sometimes, that means I go back for an extra helping because I really am hungry. Other times, I realize I’ve had enough. To me, the lesson of listening to my body has been the biggest takeaway of all. And it’s something I’ll continue to practice regardless of how big of a meal I’m prepping for myself.
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