Conventional weight loss advice tends to frontload calories at the beginning of your day. Maybe you’ve even heard the saying that one should have “breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” But a recent study published in the journal Nutrients suggests that if you want to prevent weight gain, you may need to question that approach.
Researchers in Japan looked at meal timing data for over 25,000 university students, assessing the effects of skipping meals. Within the observation time frame of three years, they found skipping dinner was the biggest predictor of weight gain and subsequent development of obesity—but skipping breakfast or lunch didn’t show those associations. In both men and women, skipping dinner resulted in at least a 10% weight gain. (Related: The 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now).
“Many studies have shown a connection between low eating frequency, which means skipping meals, and becoming overweight,” says study co-author Toshiki Moriyama, Ph.D., a professor in the Health and Counseling Center of Osaka University. “That association has been extensively studied for breakfast, but not often for lunch or dinner. The takeaway here is that it really does have an effect to avoid that last meal of the day.”
One possible reason, he says, may be that if you don’t have dinner, you could be more likely to increase calories the next day. Also, there might be a strong link between diet quality and skipping dinner, an association that previous research has highlighted as well.
For example, a study published in The Journal of Nutrition that assesses how diet quality predicts cardiovascular disease, cancer, and lifespan found that people who skip dinner tend to eat less-healthy meals over time, and are particularly low on vegetable and plant protein consumption.
That doesn’t mean other meals aren’t important, though, adds Moriyama. Their study may not have shown that skipping breakfast leads to weight gain, but he says previous studies have found those conclusions. He suggests that because the recent research was done on university students who tend to get less sleep than older people, that might have an influence on breakfast effects.
In general, it seems the best approach for preventing weight gain is to spread your calories out throughout the day and give up the king vs. pauper model.
“Simply put, dinner frequency may be a critical lifestyle factor for the prevention of obesity, just as much as breakfast,” Moriyama says.
For more, be sure to check out Exactly When to Eat Dinner to Lose Weight, Says Experts.