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

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

Unhealthy diets are risk factors for obesity and related disorders. As such, strategies to address obesity have focused on food composition, leading to recommendations to reduce sugar, salt, and fat intake, with a concomitant increase in fiber, vitamin, and mineral intake. .

Much of the research has focused on meal timing, with population studies implicating late eating in obesity and nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases. However, no studies have investigated the relationship between meal timing and processed foods.

Study: Association between late eating pattern and increased consumption of ultra-processed foods among Italian adults: findings from the INHES study.  Image Credit: Pixel-shot / ShutterstockStudy: Association between late eating pattern and increased consumption of ultra-processed foods among Italian adults: findings from the INHES study. Image Credit: Pixel-shot / Shutterstock

About the study

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

During recruitment, a telephone interview was used to obtain data on diets, health status and perceptions, anthropometric measures, and risk factors. Individuals younger than 20 years, 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 description of food, amount of food eaten, and brand of food.

Subjects were asked to indicate whether they were on a diet or if they had changed from a usual diet. Foods were categorized into: fresh or minimally processed, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods (UPF). Adherence to the Mediterranean diet was assessed using the Mediterranean Diet Score (MDS). The Food Standards Agency Nutrient Profiling System (Modified Version) Score (FSAm-NPS) and the FSAm-NPS Dietary Index (DI) were calculated.

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


The study population consisted of 4,053 men and 4,653 women, with a mean age of 56.9 years. Over 58% of calories came from fresh or minimally processed foods and processed culinary ingredients. More than 17% of the calories came from UPF. Late eaters were younger, more likely to reside in urban areas and in southern Italy, and had higher education than early eaters. In addition, 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 fat. Furthermore, multivariate-adjusted regression analyzes revealed that late eaters were less likely to consume fresh or minimally processed foods with a higher intake of UPF and culinary ingredients.

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

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


The researchers demonstrated that eating late was associated with higher UPF intake and lower consumption of fresh or minimally processed foods. In particular, the observational nature of the study and the cross-sectional design of the analyzes limit causal inference. Dietary data were self-reported, which could have led to errors and biases, including craving, recall bias, and inadequacies in food composition tables. Furthermore, only Italians were recruited, which limits the generalizability of the results.

Taken together, late eaters were likely to eat more UPF and less fresh/minimally processed foods and had a poorer diet overall than early eaters. Anticipating meal times would provide a complementary strategy to increase fresh/minimally processed foods and reduce UPFs. Further research is needed to assess whether UPF intake mediates the association between untimely eating and poor cardiometabolic health.

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