Study: WHEN You Eat is as Important as WHAT You Eat

Study: WHEN You Eat is as Important as WHAT You Eat

The body seems to run like a well-oiled machine when people listen to their internal clocks. For example, the body “prefers” sleeping at night instead of during the day, and working during the day instead of at night.

The same is true when it comes to eating patterns, say researchers. When a person eats may be just as important as when they sleep.

Research published recently (June 2016) in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society examines different eating habits and reviews several dietary studies.

Eating Can Influence Your Internal Clock

The body’s metabolic processes follow a circadian pattern, including appetite, digestion, and the breaking down of fat, cholesterol, and glucose. To put this in simple terms, it means that food intake can influence the body’s internal clock, particularly in the liver and intestines.

The researchers who reviewed the studies were from King’s College London, Newcastle University, the University of Surrey, and the Nestlé Research Centre. They say that studies have shown a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and metabolic syndrome in shift workers because they are unable to live by their body clock.

Earlier this month, a study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension independently showed that shift workers and people who are chronically sleep-deprived have an increased risk of heart disease.

One of the studies reviewed by the researchers comes from the International Journal of Obesity. The researchers found that eating meals in an irregular pattern instead of following the body’s internal clock can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

That particular study involved 1,768 people who participated in the National Survey of Health and Development. Participants reported their breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack consumption for 5 days. Researchers adjusted the data for factors of gender, marital status, socioeconomic status, physical activity levels, and smoking.

The findings showed that eating at irregular times can affect the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm. Metabolism, digestion, and other body processes follow this natural clock, which is constantly influenced by food consumption. [1]

Eating 6 Meals a Day? Or 3?

Many people have adopted a lifestyle that includes eating smaller, but more frequent meals – a habit that is touted by many fad diets. But some studies have shown that eating more than three meals a day encourages obesity.

The reviewers also looked at “social jet lag” as a potential contributing factor to irregular eating, weight gain, and metabolic syndrome.

Read: Obesity May Shut Down the Circadian Clock in the Cardiovascular System

“Social jet lag” is experienced by people, particularly those living in urban areas, who live by social activity clocks instead of their bodies’ internal clocks that signal hunger appropriately. Social activities involving eating vary from country to country.

Lunch is considered the most important meal of the day in places like France and the Mediterranean region, which reflects the importance of pleasurable and social eating.

The people we choose to dine with may also have an impact on health. This idea is supported in French households that traditionally eat together and follow a regular pattern of eating three meals a day.

In England, however, choice and convenience dictate food and dietary decisions. This apparently leads to eating more junk foods and skipping more meals.

Creating a Set Meal Schedule

In the end, the researchers found that a set meal schedule was beneficial. People whose caloric intake varied during the day – i.e., those who skipped breakfast and then ate more food later on – had a greater risk of weight gain and metabolic problems.

Dr. Gerda Pot, visiting lecturer at King’s College London, Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division, said:

“There seems to be some truth in the saying ‘eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper’, however, this warrants further investigation.”

The reviewers are calling for additional research to look more deeply into the impact of “chrono-nutrition,” how time and nutrition affect the metabolic processes and public health.

The findings suggest that people could benefit from national dietary guidelines that focus not only on what should be eaten but also on when it is eaten.

Pot added:

“Whilst we have a much better understanding today of what we should be eating, we are still left with the question as to which meal should provide us with the most energy.

Although the evidence suggests that eating more calories later in the evening is associated with obesity, we are still far from understanding whether our energy intake should be distributed equally across the day or whether breakfast should contribute the greatest proportion of energy, followed by lunch and dinner.” [2]


[1] Business Insider