Is It Better For Your Gut To Eat A Big Breakfast Or A Big Dinner?
Megan Fahey, MS, RD, CDN is a Registered Dietitian, Functional Medicine Nutritionist and Registered Yoga Teacher. She holds her Masters of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics from Bastyr University, where she was trained to artfully blend eastern and western healing modalities.
We've talked a lot about what to eat, but when you eat can be just as important. You know that circadian rhythm we talk about in reference to our sleep all the time? The same biological clock also affects our digestive functions. "Our body's natural circadian rhythms dictate metabolic and physiologic function, including our gut," explains Desiree Nielsen, R.D., and author of Eat More Plants. "Being out of sync can lead to poor outcomes, such as a breakdown in gut barrier function."
So when is the ideal time to take in the bulk of your food?
Experts tend toward consuming your larger meal at the beginning of the day. "Gastric emptying, which is how quickly food travels through the stomach, as well as absorption of nutrients, is thought to slow down in the evening. This means that eating a large dinner might lead to suboptimal digestion and absorption of the meal," explains Nielsen.
The position of our bodies when we sleep can also cause problems. "Lying supine causes gastric acids to reverse back up to the esophagus," explains Allison Aaron, R.D., and founder of Nutrition Curator. "Not only is this acid reflux extremely uncomfortable, but if chronic, it can also be detrimental to the GI tract. Sometimes, it may require the reliance on medications that you could otherwise avoid by shifting away from consuming a large meal just before bed."
Beyond that, a big breakfast could be the key to hitting your happy weight. "According to an adage and traditional medical practices, "'Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper,'" says Robert Graham, M.D. and founder of Fresh Med NYC. Modern science backs up the saying. "A study published in the Journal of Nutrition revealed that consuming breakfast and eating the largest meal in the morning may be effective for maintaining your body's optimal weight. Feeding the gut in the morning has been shown to aid in digestion and metabolism by reducing absolute energy intake over the course of the day."
That said, there are caveats.
"Digestion is influenced by many factors, from your level of stress during mealtimes to how well you chew your food," says Nielsen. "So, if mornings are crazy for you, eating a big meal might lead to poor digestion." To remedy this, Nielsen suggests drinking a couple of large glasses of water when you first wake up, then having your coffee or tea as you prepare a big healthy breakfast that you can take with you to work. "That way, you can eat when you feel your gut get going again—or when you're calmer and more able to focus on eating," she says.
Will Cole, D.C. and author of The Inflammation Spectrum, has found different results with different patients. "Those with more sensitive or sluggish digestive issues could come into trouble eating too much right before bed as it can impact their digestion (and sleep) throughout the night," he says. "But for some people, eating in the evening can help improve sleep quality. It's the heart of functional medicine: bio-individuality."
Overall, it seems like a safe bet to lean into a larger breakfast and smaller dinner—but be sure to pay attention to how your body is responding since at the end of the day (and the beginning of it!), everyone is different.
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