Hold Off On Time-Delayed Eating

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You may have caught a recent New York Times piece entitled “Time-Delayed Eating Leads to Better Food Choices” in which the author writes, “A series of experiments at Carnegie Mellon University found that when there was a significant delay between the time a person ordered their food and the time they planned on eating it, they chose lower-calorie meals.”

Dr. Eric VanEpps, the post-doctoral student who led the research, elaborates, “If a decision is going to be implemented immediately, we just care about the immediate consequences, and we discount the long-term costs and benefits. In the case of food, we care about what’s happening right now – like how tasty it is – but discount the long-term costs of an unhealthy meal. [When we order a meal in advance], you’re more evenly weighing the short-term and long-term costs and benefits. You still care about the taste but you’re more able to exert self control.”

Self control, unhealthy, lower-calorie . . . Based on the language Dr. VanEpps uses and the undercurrent of a good/bad food dichotomy, time-delayed eating sounds like yet another dieting tool right up there with drinking a glass of water before sitting down to a meal, consuming caffeine to stave off hunger, or not eating after a certain time of evening. We all know by now that dieting rarely works, right?

Regarding the research at hand, two of the pieces discussed in the New York Times article are hidden behind pay walls except for their abstracts. While I can only comment on what I am able to read, the information available to me leads to many important follow-up questions.

What happens when the time comes to eat and the food you ordered long ago does not meet your intuitive needs in the moment? Will you eat it anyway? If not, what is plan B? If you do eat it, might you consume more of it than you really need in an attempt to satisfy yourself through sheer quantity? Will you overeat by beginning your feeding with your pre-ordered food only to follow it up by eating something else that you actually want?

Consider a personal example. A little over a decade ago, I went through a phase where I was modifying cookie recipes in all sorts of ways in an effort to make them “healthier”: nuts and dried fruit instead of chocolate chips, oil instead of butter, whole wheat instead of white flour, reduced sugar, etc. These changes sounded good in theory, but who was I kidding; these “cookies” were only cookies by name and bore a stronger resemblance to pancakes. They never quite hit the spot. When you want cookies, no amount of pancakes will satisfy. Either I ate the healthier cookies by the batch in an effort to quell my cookie craving, or I chased them with traditional baked goods anyway. Now that I make normal cookies full of butter, sugar, white flour, and chocolate chips, I only need to eat one or two in order to feel satisfied.

Consider the short-term and long-term ramifications of time-delayed eating. If you just consumed a meal you did not really want but ate anyway, what happens at the next meal, or later that evening? How do you eat the next day? The next week? The next six months? The restriction/binge cycle of dieting suggests that sooner or later there will be consequences somewhere down the road.

One of my patients is coming off a serious health scare and has completely revamped his way of eating over the last year. On the weekends, his family maps out exactly what they will eat each day of the upcoming week and then they shop only for the ingredients necessary to implement their plan. When Thursday evening rolls around and the dinner entree he scheduled five days earlier no longer sounds appealing, he eats it anyway. He may not love it, but he can tolerate it.

Right now, he does not mind taking a utilitarian approach to his eating. So far, it seems to be working for him, and who knows, maybe it always will, but as his dietitian I have to think ahead to what might happen in the coming months and years as the fear associated with his medical incident subsides and leaves him with a different picture of motivation than the one he holds today. In other words, how long can one tolerate eating foods that may seem healthy on paper, but on the enjoyment scale are only meh?

Similarly, I encourage you to consider the aftermath you are likely to have on your hands if you try time-delayed eating and find yourself trying to reconcile the food you pre-selected for yourself and what you actually want to eat in the moment. If the research teaches us anything, it’s that such discrepancies are a virtual certainty to occur.

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