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When we eat is just as important as what we eat, new study shows

Many people believe they eat three meals a day, with a snack in between. A new study gives a picture of just how mindlessly we eat.
/ Source: TODAY

Many people believe they eat three meals a day, with a snack in between. But a new study finds some of us are eating off and on all day, stretching over 15 hours of our waking day. That long day of munching could be a factor in our weight problems.

People in the food app study consumed more than 35 percent of their calories after 6 p.m. and those were the calories that exceeded the maintenance level of calories we need.

“People do a lot of mindless eating,” says Satchin Panda, an associate professor at the Regulatory Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and author of the study published Thursday in the journal Cell Metabolism. “They walk into a room and they see a cookie and coffee and they are not thinking if they are hungry or not and they pick it up.”

Sound familiar?

Using an app designed to track eating habits, 150 participants photographed everything they ate for three weeks. The photos were timestamped so the researchers knew when they were eating, as well as what and how much.

The results revealed some odd eating habits, while others were common sense:

  • While most people report eating most of their calories early in the day, less than 25 percent of calories are consumed before noon.
  • On the other hand, people consumed more than 35 percent of their calories after 6 p.m. and these calories exceeded the maintenance calories people need.
  • People start eating chocolate at 10 a.m. and continue through the day.
  • Burgers and sandwiches remain most popular during the lunch hours.
  • Yogurt and coffee exist as most common morning treats.
  • Ice cream and booze satisfy cravings in the evening.

Reduce eating hours

In prior research, when animals restrict their eating hours, they lose weight. To test an eating time limit on humans, the Salk researchers asked eight overweight individuals to participate in a smaller intervention. They had to restrict their eating between 10 and 12 hours daily.

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“In our cohort of eight individuals, if they stuck to the 10 to 11 hours they reduced their calories by 20 percent,” Panda says.

The food app.Salk Institute for Biological Studies

Leslie Bonci, a nutritionist and owner of Active Eating Advice, says this shows that a small change, such as restricting eating to 10 to 12 hour period, can make a huge difference.

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“[It’s] a very easy way to reign in people’s eating,” she says. “Maybe I’ll just shorten the hours I will allow myself to eat.”

This one change can make an impact for people without the tedium of calorie counting or exercising, Bonci says, adding people will like it because “we’re lazy.”

While the small study size can’t be inclusive of all eating habits, Panda hopes to collect more data for a large study to understand daily patterns. Anyone can participate by joining at this site.