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What to Eat and When

5 tips for timing your meals for better health

En español | You know that a healthy diet has a balance of nutrients. But when you eat is also important. In fact, the timing of your meals has an impact on everything from weight loss to insomnia.

Here are five tips that will help you make the most of your meals.

When to Eat What: Protein


A spinach, tofu and cheese omelet is great for breakfast.

1. For more energy, have a protein-packed breakfast.

Maintaining steady blood sugar levels all day is crucial to avoiding energy slumps. Sweet foods — muffins or sugary cereals — may give you a quick energy spike, but the following drop in blood sugar can leave you feeling wiped out.

Instead, eat protein as part of the morning meal. In a University of Missouri study, people with Type 2 diabetes who ate a 500-calorie breakfast with 35 percent protein had fewer glucose spikes than those who consumed less protein and more carbohydrates. Also, "protein stimulates hormones that increase fullness while inhibiting hormones that stimulate hunger," says study author Heather J. Leidy, an assistant professor of nutrition at Missouri.

Try this: a spinach, tofu and cheese omelet.

When to Eat What: Protein

Lew Robertson

Aim for a recovery snack with 30 grams of protein, like a protein shake.

2. To refuel after a workout, try a carb-protein combo.

Research shows that a snack containing both carbohydrates and protein is best for recovery after exercise. Carbs help boost flagging energy levels, while protein builds muscle mass. Stuart Phillips, director of the McMaster Centre for Nutrition, Exercise and Health Research at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, says that for maximum effect, eat a post-workout snack within an hour of exercising that emphasizes the three R's: water to rehydrate, carbohydrates to refuel and protein to repair muscles.

People need more protein as muscle mass declines with age, Phillips says. Yet a recent AARP-Abbott survey found that just 17 percent of respondents knew how much protein they needed — 46 grams a day for women and 56 grams for men. Active older adults may need more.

Try this: Aim for a recovery snack with 30 grams of protein, like a protein shake or grilled chicken wrap with whole wheat tortilla.

When to Eat What: Protein

Iain Bagwell

Whole grain pasta topped with roasted tomatoes, basil, parsley and pine nuts

3. For weight loss, load up at lunchtime.

Eating your biggest meal earlier in the day may help with weight loss. In a 2013 study published in the International Journal of Obesity, researchers found that overweight and obese adults who ate their biggest meal earlier in the day lost more weight than those who ate their main meal later, despite similar activity levels and calories. Your body burns twice as many calories after an earlier meal than a later one, says Frank Scheer, director of the Medical Chronobiology Program at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Try this: whole grain pasta topped with roasted tomatoes, basil, parsley and pine nuts.

When to Eat What: Protein

Hiroshi Higuchi

25 pistachios, which are packed with potassium and protein are a great snack.

4. For an afternoon brain boost, grab a handful of nuts.

Not only are nuts good for heart health, but a 2015 Spanish study found that older adults who ate a handful of nuts daily improved their memory over four years. Lead author Emilio Ros, M.D., a researcher at the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona, said eating nuts may help prevent cognitive decline in older people — especially when they're combined with a healthy Mediterranean diet. In addition, "eating nuts also reduces the brain responses that typically stimulate food consumption," Leidy says, so snacking on nuts can help with weight loss as well.

Try this: 25 pistachios, which are packed with potassium and protein.

When to Eat What: Protein

Gareth Morgans

Salmon broiled in sesame seed oil is an ideal dinner.

5. For better sleep, fill up on fiber.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that eating a meal high in fiber and low in saturated fat and sugar helped subjects fall asleep in less than 20 minutes, compared with 30 minutes for those who ate more fat and sugar than fiber. A high-fiber dinner was also associated with more time in slow-wave deep sleep, which is essential for immune function, says study author Marie-Pierre St-Onge, assistant professor at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. Steering clear of the refrigerator after supper can also improve sleep, as snacking signals to the body that it's time to be awake and active, according to a 2014 study published in Current Obesity Reports.

Try this: salmon broiled in sesame seed oil, quinoa, roasted cauliflower and an arugula tossed salad.

Jodi Helmer is a health writer who has been published in Shape and Health.