When and what to eat at lunch for a healthier brain and body

When and what to eat at lunch for a healthier brain and body

How do you usually eat your lunch? Do you tend to just grab a coffee and an occasional sushi roll and eat it on the run?

Or do you find it isn’t until 2 or 3pm that you have the time to sit and eat something? Maybe you routinely pack your lunch only to be lured by the local cafe or food court.

While breakfast receives much attention as the “most important” meal of the day, and dinner remains a focal point of the evening, lunch tends to be the meal most often overlooked.

From a nutritional perspective, lunch actually plays a much greater role in predicting and controlling calorie intake than we give it credit for, which means that, if lunch is not on your radar, here are the reasons it should be.

Why a late lunch is not good for metabolism

Long gone are the days when the entire office or household stops at 12 sharp to sit and enjoy a balanced meal at lunchtime. Busy schedules, coffee culture and a short school day mean that many of us are left scrambling come 2pm to grab something to take us through until dinner.

The issue with eating lunch much later in the day is that it shifts calorie intake disproportionately to the second half of the day, which is not ideal for weight control.

You may have also noticed that you get a strong appetite throughout the afternoon when you have grabbed lunch late, resulting in cravings and extra snacking, especially on high-carb foods such as crackers, chips, bars and other snack foods.

From an energy regulation perspective, consuming inadequate amounts of fuel when your brain and body is most active is not ideal for optimal physical or cognitive performance.

When should I eat lunch?

You should notice hunger three to four hours after your first meal each day, which means that most of us will be in need of a refuel by noon or 1pm – the good old-fashioned lunchtime. For many, this appetite may be disrupted by consuming a relatively late mid-morning snack, or milk-based coffee throughout the morning.

Aiming to have a good three to four hours in between any food or drink consumption will help to re-engage you with your natural hunger signals at lunchtime. If you love coffee, swap to piccolos or black coffee to lessen the effect of small amounts of milk on your natural appetite.

What should I have for lunch?

Nutritionally, the most important components of lunch for energy regulation, glucose control, nutrient intake and calorie control are a decent 20-30g of total protein and at least a couple of cups of salad or vegetables.

The protein found in tinned fish, chicken, lean meat, eggs or tofu will help to keep you full and satisfied for several hours after eating, while the vegetable and salad bulk will give you the bulk required to support digestive comfort, glucose control and appetite regulation throughout the afternoon.

Popular lunch choices including sushi, wraps, sandwiches and stir-fries tend to be carbohydrate heavy, with large serves of white rice, noodles, thick white bread and wraps, which send blood glucose levels sky-rocketing so we are left feeling tired and lethargic throughout the afternoon.

While some good quality carbohydrate is important to fuel the brain and the muscles, the key is to opt for vegetable and wholegrain carbohydrates such as grain-based breads and crackers, corn, sweet potato and legumes, which have a lower glycaemic index and support glucose control.

What if I buy my lunch?

Whether you buy your lunch daily or occasionally, the key thing to remember is that the average lunch meal from a food court or cafe contains double the calories of a similar meal you would prepare at home, thanks to the liberal use of sauces, fattier cuts of meat and large portions of processed carbohydrates such as white wraps, white rice and noodles.

For this reason, if you do need to buy your lunch, seeking out lighter options such as vegetable- and protein-rich salads, naked burrito bowls, sashimi and rice paper rolls will ensure you get the fresh food you need, minus the extra fat and calories.

How to pack a healthy lunch

  • Carbs: Sandwich, leftovers or salad with protein such as chicken or tuna
  • Vegetables: Soup or chopped vegetables
  • Protein snack: Cheese, yoghurt, egg, roasted broad beans or protein ball
  • Piece of fruit
  • Handful of nuts or a nut or seed-based snack

Top food-court lunch options:

  • Naked burrito bowl
  • Low-carb rice paper rolls
  • Meat or chicken salad sandwich
  • Chicken or fish with salad
  • Prawn or tofu stir-fry with vegetables


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