Meals differ in their nutritional content. This variation has not been fully addressed despite its potential contribution in understanding eating behavior. The aim of this study was to investigate the between-meal and between-individual variance in energy and macronutrient intake as a measure of variation in intake and the meal type-specific relative importance of predictors of these intake variations.
Energy and macronutrient intake were derived from three 24 h dietary recalls in an EPIC-Potsdam sub-cohort of 814 German adults. Intra-class correlation was calculated for participants and meal type. Predictors of intake were assessed using meal type-specific multilevel regression models in a structural equation modeling framework at intake and participant levels using the Pratt Index. The importance of the predictor energy misreporting was assessed in sensitivity analyses on 682 participants. 95% confidence intervals were calculated based on 1000 bootstrap samples.
Differences between meal types explain a large proportion of the variation in intake (intra-class correlation: 39% for energy, 25% for carbohydrates, 47% for protein, and 33% for fat). Between-participant variation in intake was much lower, with a maximum of 3% for carbohydrate and fat. Place of meal was the most important intake-level predictor of energy and macronutrient intake (Pratt Index of up to 65%). Week/weekend day was important in the breakfast meal, and prior interval (hours passed since last meal) was important for the afternoon snack and dinner. On the participant level, sex was the most important predictor, with Pratt Index of up to 95 and 59% in the main and in the sensitivity analysis, respectively. Energy misreporting was especially important at the afternoon snack, accounting for up to 69% of the explained variance.
The meal type explains the highest variation in energy and macronutrient intakes. We identified key predictors of variation in the intake and in the participant levels. These findings suggest that successful dietary modification efforts should focus on improving specific meals.