Link found between late eating and higher consumption of ultra-processed foods


In a recent study published in the journal Nutrients, researchers in Italy examined the associations between meal timing and food processing.

Unhealthy diets are risk factors for obesity and related disorders. As such, strategies to tackle obesity have been focused on food compositions, resulting in recommendations to lower sugar, salt, and fat intake, with a concomitant increase in fiber, vitamin, and mineral intake.

Much research has been centered on meal timing, with population studies implicating late eating in obesity and nutrition-related non-communicable diseases. Nonetheless, no study has investigated the relationship between meal timing and processed foods.

Study: Association between Late-Eating Pattern and Higher Consumption of Ultra-Processed Food among Italian Adults: Findings from the INHES Study. Image Credit: Pixel-Shot / Shutterstock

About the study

In the present study, researchers evaluated whether meal timing is associated with foods with different levels of processing. Data were sourced from the Italian Nutrition and Health Survey (INHES), a three-year survey to explore dietary habits, food choice determinants, and awareness of food health among Italians enrolled from 2010 to 2013.

During recruitment, a telephone interview was used to obtain data on diets, health status and perceptions, anthropometric measures, and risk factors. Individuals under 20, those with extreme energy intake, and those with missing diet/meal timing data were excluded. Participants were instructed to recall/record data on the time/place of food consumption, detailed food description, intake quantity, and food brand.

Subjects were asked to indicate if they were on a diet or had changed from a habitual diet. Food items were classified into – fresh or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed food items, and ultra-processed foods (UPFs). Mediterranean diet adherence was assessed by the Mediterranean Diet Score (MDS). The Food Standards Agency Nutrient Profiling System (modified version) (FSAm-NPS) score and FSAm-NPS dietary index (DI) were calculated.

The median time for each meal was estimated, and one point was assigned to participants eating their breakfast, lunch, and dinner after the median time of 7 a.m., 1 p.m., and 8 p.m., respectively. No points were assigned if subjects consumed food before the median time. Participants with scores of 2 or above were deemed to have a late eating pattern (late eaters); otherwise, they were considered to have an early eating pattern (early eaters).


The study population comprised  4,053 males and 4,653 females, with an average age of 56.9. More than 58% of calories were from fresh or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients. Over 17% of calories were from UPFs. Late eaters were younger, more likely to reside in urban areas and Southern Italy, and had a higher education than early eaters. Moreover, late eaters were less likely to have/report chronic disorders and other conditions.

Late eaters were likely to consume less energy from carbohydrates but more from fats. In addition, multivariable-adjusted regression analyses revealed that late eaters were less likely to consume fresh or minimally processed foods with increased intake of UPFs and culinary ingredients.

Eating late was associated with FSAm-NPS DI and inversely with Mediterranean diet adherence. The association between eating late and intake of fresh/minimally processed food or processed food was stronger in younger subjects than in older people.

Also, late breakfast eating was associated with a lower fresh/minimally processed food intake, higher UPF intake, higher FSAm-NPS DI, and lower Mediterranean diet adherence. Late lunch eaters had an increased intake of culinary ingredients. Late dinner eaters were more likely to eat processed foods and UPFs, and less likely to eat fresh/minimally processed foods; they were also less adherent to the Mediterranean diet.


The researchers showed that late eating was associated with a higher intake of UPFs and lower consumption of fresh/minimally processed foods. Notably, the study’s observational nature and the cross-sectional design of analyses limit causal inference. Dietary data were self-reported, which might have led to errors and biases, including desirability, recall bias, and inadequacies in food composition tables. Moreover, only Italians were recruited, limiting the generalizability of the results.

Taken together, late eaters were likely to eat more UPFs and fewer fresh/minimally processed foods and had a poor diet quality overall than early eaters. Anticipating meal timing would provide a complementary strategy to increase fresh/minimally processed foods and reduce UPFs. Further investigations are needed to assess whether UPF intake mediates the association between mistimed meals and poor cardiometabolic health.

Journal reference:

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