Americans Pretty Much Only Stop Eating When They’re Sleeping

Man reaching for nut in bowl, close-up.
Photo: 13/Chris Windsor/Corbis

Be honest: Are you snacking right now? You are, aren’t you? It’s okay — so am I. According to new research published last week in Cell Metabolism, if you are awake, you are probably eating. The 156 healthy San Diego residents in this study started eating shortly after waking up and kept right on going for 15 hours, hardly pausing in between snacks. It’s disturbingly similar to the 2012 Onion headline “Report: Majority of Americans Now Eating One Continuous Meal a Day.” 

The point of the study, as Science News reports, was to determine whether restricting the timing of meals might help people lose weight, as has been suggested in animal research. “Critics of the work have long contended that the animal studies don’t apply to humans, because everybody knows that people eat three meals a day within a 12-hour period,” Tina Hesman Saey writes. This, as it turned out, is not exactly true. 

Like a bunch of power Instagram users, the volunteers were instructed to snap a smartphone photo of every single thing they consumed throughout the day. They did this for three weeks, and each photo came with a time stamp, allowing the researchers to figure out when they were eating — which, according to each individual’s photos, was practically all the time. Saey writes:

When analyzing the eating patterns, the researchers couldn’t pick out defined breakfast, lunch and dinner times for most participants. People started eating about 1.5 hours after waking up and finished a couple of hours before bedtime with no discernible large breaks in between, the researchers found. About 25 percent of calories were eaten before noon, and 35 percent consumed after 6 p.m.  

Additionally, in a small pilot study, eight overweight study volunteers took part in a 16-week intervention period, during which time they only ate within a ten-hour period throughout the day. They were instructed to change nothing else about their eating or lifestyle habits, and yet this change alone was enough to cut back their calorie intake by about 20 percent per day, which resulted in an average of seven pounds lost over the 16 weeks.

True, eight people is not a large enough sample to say anything definitively, but it’s a step toward figuring out the actual eating habits of Americans, and the interventions obesity researchers can devise that may help people lose weight. What people eat is certainly still important, but so, apparently, is when. 

Americans Only Stop Eating When They’re Sleeping