Researchers say that adopting a fixed timetable for meals could be a more effective method of dieting than trying to cut out fatty foods.
People who snack on healthy food can put on weight if their eating patterns are not maintained properly, according to new study.
In contrast, the researchers said, sticking to strict meal times is good for the metabolism and helps the body burn off fat, allowing a more liberal choice of food, the Telegraph reported.
Previous studies have shown that both a high-fat diet and eating patterns that disrupt the natural body clock can interfere with our metabolism and raise the risk of obesity.
Scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem tested the effects of timing and fat intake on four groups of mice over an 18-week period to determine whether careful scheduling of meals could lower the effects of a high-fat diet.
Half were given a high-fat diet that would normally be expected to make them obese. Of these, a quarter were fed at the same time each day and another quarter could eat as much as they liked, whenever they liked.
The other half was fed a diet that was lower in fat. Again, one quarter had a fixed feeding time, the other had not.
All four of the groups gained weight over the course of the trial, with the group that ate a high-fat diet at irregular intervals unsurprisingly gaining the most weight, while those on a low-fat, scheduled diet gained the least.
But more surprisingly, the mice that had been fed a high-fat diet at regular intervals finished the trial in a better condition than those that ate low-fat foods whenever they wanted, despite both groups consuming the same number of calories overall.
The mice in the scheduled, high-fat group had 12 per cent lower body weight, 21 per cent lower cholesterol and 1.4 times higher sensitivity to insulin than the unscheduled, low-fat group.
The diet also changed their metabolism so that they burnt off the fats they ingested to produce energy in between meal times, rather than storing the fat in their bodies.
"Our research shows that the timing of food consumption takes precedence over the amount of fat in the diet, leading to improved metabolism and helping to prevent obesity," the paper quoted Prof Oren Froy, who led the experiment, as saying.
"Improving metabolism through the careful scheduling of meals, without limiting the content of the daily menu, could be used as a therapeutic tool to prevent obesity in humans," he suggested.
The study was published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.