If you’ve been working from home for the past year, the mundaneness might be getting to you. Some days, lunch and snack time may be what you look forward to most. But is there an optimal time to eat that’ll allow you to be more productive?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Gerard Mullin, a gastroenterologist and associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and author of “The Gut Balance Revolution.”
The best time to eat meals varies from person to person, depending on caloric needs, appetite and how much you generally move, he said. Your work-from-home habits and schedules play a role, too.
Working from home, you’re probably sitting more, your schedule may be out of whack, and you’re likely feeling extra stress from the pandemic. All of this affects your overall health and digestion, Mullin said. It might also drive you to eat more than you should, making you feel tired, uncomfortable and unable to concentrate.
That’s why it’s crucial to space out your meals to keep your energy and focus levels up while working from home. To figure out when exactly you should eat, you have to understand your own hunger signals, eating habits and digestion.
Get to know your hunger cues
Many factors influence how often and when you need to eat, such as life stages, pregnancy, activity levels, gender, health goals and chronic health conditions, said Rahaf Al Bochi, a registered dietitian nutritionist, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition.
“Having some meal structure is important. However, that needs to be combined with listening to your body’s hunger cues,” she said. “Hunger cues can be different for each person and can include lower energy levels, headaches, stomach growling, moodiness or the stomach feeling empty.”
To gauge your hunger signals, try using a hunger scale ― where 1 is extremely hungry and 10 is stuffed ― before and after meals to identify when, how often and how much to eat, suggested Alyssa Pike, registered dietitian and manager of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council.
“It’s ideal to aim to eat when you’re at about a 4 (slightly hungry) and stop at about a 6 (satisfied),” she said.
So, when should you eat lunch?
Your first meal of the day should be within 30 to 60 minutes of waking up, Al Bochi said, to help fuel and nourish your body.
Then, consider how long it takes to digest a meal before eating again. Mullin said that when the stomach is half-full, digestion of a solid meal takes about four hours.
Therefore, aim to eat lunch (or a snack) three to five hours after breakfast. “However, this is only a guide, and that’s where becoming in tune with your body and its hunger cues is very important,” Al Bochi added.
Consider, too, what you ate for breakfast and how active you were afterward.
“If your breakfast was too small, you may find yourself thinking about food or feeling your stomach growl as soon as one to two hours later,” Pike said. “If you ate a breakfast with multiple food groups, including protein and fiber, it’s more likely the three- to four-hour range would make sense.”
Protein and fiber help with satiety, so meals containing these food groups help you feel full longer.
What you eat also affects the brain-gut connection, which influences your mood, mental health and brain activity. To improve gut bacteria, Al Bochi suggested incorporating probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt and sauerkraut, and prebiotics, like whole grains, vegetables and nuts.
Just don’t wait too long between meals
Intermittent fasting, or going long hours without eating, is a popular diet plan. But Mullin said evidence of its benefits are mixed and highly individualized. Most people need to eat regularly throughout the day to maintain their energy.
“Eating frequency should be based on keeping steady fuel to the brain and even blood sugar,” he said.
The body converts most of what you eat into glucose, which fuels your energy levels and helps you stay alert, according to the Harvard Business Review. So when you go too long without eating or skip meals, your glucose levels drop, and so does your energy and concentration.
Then, when you do eat again, you may be extra hungry and overeat, Al Bochi said. “If you are extremely hungry, you are also less likely to make healthy food choices since at that point you will likely eat whatever is in front of you, which for many people is heavier carb choices from the pantry,” she said.
Feeling too full can just be uncomfortable, too, Pike said. It might also cause indigestion and gastric reflux. When you’re not feeling great, getting work done may be a struggle.
The best and worst types of foods to eat at lunch
Avoid carb-rich foods, which release glucose quickly into the body, giving you a jolt of energy followed by a crash.
High-fat meals may offer more sustained energy, but your digestive system has to work a little harder to process them, which lowers oxygen levels and might make you feel sluggish.
Instead, to sustain energy levels, you should eat lots of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and a moderate amount of healthy fats to improve brain power.
There’s usually room for snacking
About two hours after a meal, you may have an insulin surge and feel hungry, Mullin said. Having a snack helps keep your energy levels up, but the type of snack matters.
“Choose a snack that has protein and healthy fats to balance blood sugars and keep you full and satiated,” Al Bochi said. An apple and nut butter, cheese and crackers, hummus and veggies, and nuts and dried fruits are some examples.
Just don’t snack mindlessly, which Al Bochi said could affect your health over time, interfering with meal structure and appetite, causing indigestion and contributing to weight gain.
Base your snacking around your schedule and preferences, Pike suggested. Some days, you may feel like having a snack between breakfast and lunch, or other days between lunch and dinner. And, there’s nothing wrong with sometimes having a snack that just makes you happy and breaks up the monotony of a long work-from-home day.
“Occasionally, your snack might feel like more of a treat,” she said. “That’s OK, too.”