January 15, 2015

A study at Brigham Young University suggests that meal timing matters. The study looked at fruit and vegetable consumption in Utah schools where recess was held after lunch, which is typical in the USA, compared with schools where recess was moved to be before lunch.

The ‘play first eat later’ opportunity lead to a 54% per child increase in fruit and vegetable consumption at lunch, and it also meant that 45% more kids ate fruit and vegetables at all. The researchers theorise that kids are hungrier after play and they’re also not rushing to finish eating so they can maximise playtime.

The purpose of recess is to allow children time for the toilet, a snack and, most importantly, to play and release built-up energy. Take any kid to a playground and they’re off and running before you’ve finished parking the car; their natural inclination is to ignore everything else in favour of play.

It makes sense, then, that schools allow for play and the release of energy before expecting kids to sit still (again) and eat a nutritious meal. If we get the sequence wrong, the study suggests, kids don’t eat and most food is thrown out. This has impacts on behaviour and on learning outcomes, indicating the importance of getting it right.

So what does this mean for adults trying to lose weight? We can only guess how the study might extrapolate to adults, but a walk or other exercise before breakfast could lead on to eating a better breakfast. The walk gives the body a chance switch over from a resting state to an active state, where fuel is required for body functions.

Planning for a morning walk also forces you to get out of bed earlier, and this often means that there is enough time to prepare a healthy breakfast instead of grabbing a coffee on the run or shaking a bowl of cereal out of a box. The nutritious breakfast also leads on the better cognitive function, greater creativity, clearer thinking, and better work performance.

Let’s apply the same logic to lunch: like kids at recess, the ‘walk first eat later’ model might enable a quick walk at the start of a lunch break and then follow it up with a healthy salad or left-overs.

Not only does exercising first allow for more calorie expenditure, the virtuous feeling of having done some exercise spills over to making better food choices.

However you choose to fit in your exercise and structure your meal timing, the most important thing is that it helps you get the results you’re after. If your current routine is not getting you the desired results, what could you do to change?