Last Updated November 3rd, 2022
The role of meal timings
Food is the most important constituent of the human system and it has a major impact on a person’s health and well-being. The overall effect of the food that is consumed depends not only on the type that is consumed but also on the time in which it is consumed. The subject of meal timings has been of much interest among researchers and the results have been conflicting. While some evidence indicates a relation between higher meal frequencies and lower disease risk, others indicate higher disease risk with frequent meals. The other factors that are involved are the distribution of the daily calorie intake, especially during breakfast and during the night. Another important aspect that plays a significant role is the fasting period between two consecutive meals. By changing the above factors, the overall energy levels and the macronutrient intake in the body can be altered in major ways.
The factor of meal timing has also been related to the overall metabolic rate of an individual and the same can result in obesity or other health conditions like cardiovascular health and diabetes. The impact of an individual’s genetic makeup on the time of food consumption is also important and, in some cases, it had a significant impact on weight loss. When it comes to meal timings, the following factors are involved.
- The timing of food intake.
- Food timing within the day.
- The skipping of breakfast
- Intake distribution across the day.
- Food regularity.
- Intermittent fasting.
These factors also affect the body’s circadian clock rhythm, which is an internal clock that runs for 24 hours in the brain. This is controlled by the hypothalamus of the brain and is also influenced by the light and dark phases during the day.
A historical view
The western approach to food intake has always been divided into three meals a day; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was some advice that encouraged snacking in between meals and this resulted in a lot of people consuming 5 to six meals in a day. Fifty years back, 82% of an adult’s daily calorie intake was from meals and snacks contributing 18%. Presently the contribution from snacks has risen to 23%. The concept of three meals in a day is also a recent one in the scale of history and it never was a universal standard. The records from old civilizations show that Roman believed in consuming one major meal in a day and consumed light food in the mornings and the afternoons.
Ancient Chinese physicians also believed that the energy flow of the body is dependent on the position of the sun and hence the meal timings should also be adjusted accordingly. They also believed that dinner should be light and needs to be consumed within 7 pm when the kidney is the predominant organ in the body. During the era of the industrial revolution, breakfast became an important meal as it was consumed before heading out for work. The influence of electricity and artificial light in society also provided more importance to dinner and people were able to consume food easily, even after the dark.
The human circadian system
The master clock of the human system is located in the brain and is composed of around 20000 neurons that work round the clock. It is also related to the amount of daylight that a person is experiencing. The Circadian rhythms, metabolism, and nutrition are closely interlinked even though the exact mechanism that links them is not clearly understood yet. The food items that are consumed daily send a signal to the internal clock, allowing the system to activate the mechanisms responsible for the necessary intake of food based on the pattern. It regulates the process of digestion and energy intake and then stays in a standby mode to receive the next instalment of food. This makes many experts believe that the consumption of food in an irregular manner will affect the efficiency of this clock and thereby, in an overall inefficiency of the human system. Specific and regular patterns of eating help the body clock to remain strong and effective.
Consumption of unhealthy food and snacks for a fixed time will also confuse the clock and affect the metabolic activity in the system. The Circadian system works closely with the nutrients present in food and a meal that is poor with nutrients can confuse the clock. There are clocks in every cell of the body that make individual organs that work at different time periods by controlling blood pressure, insulin levels, and other vital aspects of the system. At the same time, this has to be coordinated with the external environment. In today’s world, food is easily available and most people can keep munching all through the day. The maximum gap between two meals for most is between eight to ten hours. But since food availability was not so easy through the human developmental phase, continuous eating can not only affect digestion but also result in improper nutrient processing.
Effects of meal frequency
In the present-day scenario, obesity and being overweight is a health problem that is affecting millions of people around the world. Meal timings and frequency play an important role in reducing these problems and make weight control and weight loss an effective process. Recent research has pointed out that a lower meal frequency has multiple health benefits including a reduction in the risk of weight gain and type 2 diabetes. The same can also result in the reduction of oxidative damage together with an enhanced level of stress resistance. At present, the concept of intermittent fasting is gaining popularity and it has been backed by research. The food that is broken down as sugar can only enter or get stored in the fat cells through a hormone called insulin. A larger gap between meals will allow the insulin levels to fall, which will result in the fat cells releasing the stored sugar which supplies the necessary energy to the body.
The Circadian system is designed to take in more food during the daytime and hence the process of intermittent fasting, along with a nutritious plant-based diet, can be an effective solution for weight reduction. The following points can be kept in mind while trying to fix a gap between the meals.
- It is best to avoid sugars and refined grains. A sensible, plant-based, diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, proteins, and healthy fats is a better choice.
- To let your body burn fat between meals, it is important not to snack, especially during the night. It is also necessary to be active throughout the day as much as possible.
- From a diet plan involving intermittent fasting, it is best to limit the hours of the day when you eat and try to consume the food earlier in the day.
The importance of breakfast timing
It has been an established belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. As per definition, breakfast is defined as the first meal of the day that is consumed no later than 10 am. It should also provide 20% to 35% of total daily energy needs in terms of calories. Research has also pointed out that eating a healthy breakfast is related to lower risks of coronary heart disease. At the same time, the number of people who have skipped breakfast has gone up in the past decade at a steady rate. Research indicates that more than 70% of breakfast skippers do not meet up to two-thirds of the recommended dietary allowance for vitamins and minerals. Multiple studies have also associated timely breakfast consumption with a lower risk of obesity and weight gain. It also results in a lower risk of cardiovascular diseases and better glucose as well as insulin metabolism throughout the day.
Certain studies have also associated skipping breakfast with a higher rate of haemorrhagic stroke. Skipping breakfast can also lead to higher BMI levels in an individual and values above 25 indicate that a person is overweight. Breakfast consumption also improves the cardio-metabolic risk profile for a person. Some recent studies have indicated that there is limited evidence to confirm that timely breakfast is associated with weight management. Considering that the internal clock is controlled by the person’s exposure to bright light, having a heavy meal in the brightest parts of the day makes more sense. At this stage, more research needs to be conducted in this field to assess the long terms pros and cons of following a regular breakfast schedule.
Meal timings and energy balance
At present the clinical trials based on meal timings and their effect on metabolism patterns of the human body are limited. But with more young people staying awake till midnight hours and consuming food till the last moment, the overall fasting during nighttime is getting lower as is their total sleep duration. Inadequate sleep can disrupt the levels of leptin and ghrelin, hormones that control hunger in the blood. This can lead to poor diet choices during the day. The conditions like obesity and diabetes are metabolism-related disorders and are closely associated with the internal clock of the body. Consuming food when a person’s internal clock is in a sleep-rest period can generate adverse health conditions. This is quite often seen in shift workers who are also affected by unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, and insufficient sleep.
It is clear that the weight regulation of the body depends not only on the number of calories consumed but also on the timing of calorie intake. The close interlinking of the circadian clocks with the metabolic rates shows that circadian timing is an important factor in overall health management. Every cell in the body also has its independent clock which is effective in tissue-specific functions that occur throughout the day. These molecular pathways can affect the metabolic state and the overall metabolic outcome. Hence, detailed research in these aspects can bring about various benefits that can impact health. It is possible that a particular treatment can be more effective when it is administered during a certain period of the day.
Benefits of the right meal timings
Apart from the effects on weight management, the right meal timings can also bring about the following benefits in an individual’s life.
- The body can break down protein more effectively after a prolonged period of fasting and hence for those who want to build muscles consuming the right proteins during breakfast is very important. For those who are involved with strength training, this can bring about a lot of positive effects in their lifestyle.
- Eating the right amount of food during the night will also help you to sleep better by settling down the circadian system. It is best not to eat at least two hours before hitting the bed and consume lower amounts of saturated fats. Some research has pointed out that food items like sweet cherries contain melatonin which helps to bring balance in the sleep patterns and the circadian rhythm.
- Athletes who are undertaking intense workout sessions can consume a combination of carbohydrates and proteins within an hour of the workout. This should not be a heavy meal but sufficient enough to boost the energy levels and promote the rate of recovery.
- Carbohydrate levels affect the secretion of serotonin which helps individuals to remain in a good mood and feel relaxed. So the consumption of carbohydrates at the right time will prevent serotonin levels from hitting very low levels.
- In some studies, it was shown that women who ate a hearty breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a small dinner had a 50% rise in their ovulation rates. The right meal timings will have a positive impact on some of the key hormones that impact fertility and bring about a positive result for women who are trying to conceive.
While meal timing is as important as the type of food that you choose to consume, it is best to choose the right strategy that suits you the best. Consuming heavy meals in the earlier half of the day and practicing intermittent fasting are some ways that you can maximize the benefits from your diet patterns. With the rise in obesity and metabolic diseases, the benefits of practicing the right meal timings in a sustainable manner can have an enormous positive impact on the overall well-being of an individual.
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