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If you want to live longer, make this the biggest meal of the day

February 15, 2023, 8:02 PM UTC
Female making healthy oatmeal breakfast in kitchen.
In the world's blue zones, centenarians eat "hearty" breakfasts.
Getty Images

Busy mornings can leave us rushing out the door without making time for breakfast—nearly 25% of Americans forgo this meal. And that could have negative long-term consequences.

Eating on the go and saving your biggest meal for late in the day has become commonplace. But science has found that eating breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper might be the key to living longer, healthier lives. It might even help you reach 100. 

Research published in 2022 analyzed nine studies on chrononutrition, or how eating at different times affects energy and health outcomes. The analysis found those who ate the most toward the earlier morning had improved cholesterol and blood pressure metrics and lost more weight, which can reduce the risk of heart problems and diabetes that lead to earlier mortality. 

Saving larger meals for the evening hours, specifically eating within two hours of going to bed can make it harder for the body to metabolize the food, putting people at risk for chronic health problems. It can also make falling and staying asleep more challenging. 

So even on your craziest days, you don’t want to skip breakfast. 

How to eat breakfast like you live in a blue zone 

Those living in the world’s blue zones—the areas at the forefront of longevity research, like Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia, Italy; and Nicoya, Costa Rica—also tend to eat more filling meals earlier in the day or have earlier dinners. 

“Nicoyans often eat two breakfasts with a light dinner; Ikarians and Sardinians make lunch the big meal of the day,” reads a post on the Blue Zones website. “Many Adventists who follow the ‘breakfast like a king’ rule eat only two meals a day, one midmorning and another around 4 p.m.”

While those living in the blue zones eat varied menus, a common thread among them is meals low in ultra-processed foods and rich in protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. Many residents of blue zones also eat breakfasts filled with whole ingredients, protein, and nutrients. 

“Breakfast in the blue zones looks vastly different than the standard American breakfast of eggs and bacon,” the post continues. “Beans are a common breakfast staple in Costa Rica, while miso soup and rice are popular in Okinawa. In Loma Linda, [Calif.], centenarians often eat a hearty breakfast of oatmeal or a somewhat nontraditional tofu scramble.”

While late-shift workers and those on varied schedules may have little control over mealtimes, choosing nutritious foods and eating well before bed can still make a difference. 

Why do mealtimes matter?

Another recent study published in Cell Metabolism that controlled for exercise, sleep, and light exposure—and gave participants the same food but at varying intervals—found that eating later decreased the hormone related to feelings of fullness. The later-eating group also burned fewer calories than the earlier ones, and genes related to fat storage differed between the groups. 

“Together, these changes may explain why late eating is associated with increased obesity risk reported by other studies and provide new biological insight into the underlying mechanisms,” researchers on the study Dr. Frank Scheer and Dr. Nina Vujović previously told Fortune

One explanation is how our body’s metabolism changes throughout the day. Consuming most of our food earlier in the day aligns with our circadian rhythm or natural body clock. Research suggests melatonin, the hormone released for sleep, may decrease glucose tolerance and explain why the body has a more difficult time metabolizing late-night meals. 

However, you don’t need to overhaul your schedule to follow the blue-zone way. Some habits may work for some, but not for all. Another way to prioritize health and longevity is by eating simple, easy-to-cook, and delicious foods, longevity expert and author of The Blue Zones Dan Buettner previously told Fortune.

“People tend to think [of] the expensive super foods, or even expensive fresh produce, which is out of reach for a lot of Americans,” he says. “In a blue zone, people are eating peasant food, so they’re eating the beans and the greens that are growing in vacant lots and whole grains, which are cheap. You can buy those in bulk.” 

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