When Should I Eat?

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Guest blog by Sam Hadadi,

Is Timing Everything When It Comes to Eating?

For years, healthy eaters have sworn by the well-touted mantra that “you are what you eat.”

Ever since, from side-stepping sugar-laden snack bars to piling plates high with mountains of avocado, eggs and lean protein, living a healthy lifestyle has become all about how we fill our plates.

However, new research has thrown the idea that it’s what we eat that matters into chaos – and it may even prove that it’s time for a rethink on how we see healthy eating. In fact, from now on, you may want to change that motto entirely to “you are when you eat…

How Meal Patterns Can Affect Our Health

While it may sound odd, scientists have been reviewing research on how meal patterns can affect our health and they’ve discovered that eating irregularly can throw our body completely out of synch. In fact, meal skipping is so bad for us that it can lead to a higher risk of elevated blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Sweet Potato Nachos
Sweet potato nachos

Given all of this, is timing really everything when it comes to staying healthy?

As a result of the review, researchers at King’s College in London have warned that there needs to be further studies into how the timing of our meals can affect our health.

The Difficulty for Shift Workers

This is becoming more and more important when you consider the ever-growing rise of shift workers and ‘social jet lag,’ which happens when we reset our body clock at the weekend. How many of us skip breakfast altogether for the sake of a lie-in at the weekend, or eat a brunch and miss lunch?!

The more you think about it, the clearer it becomes that how we eat is changing – more meals are skipped, we’re eating on-the-go, later in the day and more irregularly. So, does this really mess with our body? And does it matter more than what we’re eating itself?

The Study

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, looked at different eating habits from an array of studies. During their research, scientists discovered that eating inconsistently may affect our internal body clock – or circadian rhythms, if you want to get fancy.

Unfortunately for us irregular eaters, many of our body’s nutritionally-related metabolic processes follow a circadian pattern. Things like appetite, digestion and the metabolism of fat, cholesterol and glucose all work on our body clock.

Our food intake can also throw our internal clock into chaos, particularly in organs such as the liver and intestine. It can even have an impact on our central clock, which is regulated by the dark/light cycle.

During the review, researchers discovered that there are heaps of studies to show that people working shifts can see an increased risk of diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Because of this, researchers are warning shift workers to be wary of changes in dietary patterns – though that’s easier said than done!

What Does This Mean for Me?

Unless you eat by the clock (and, really, in modern day life, who can do that?), this research may force you to sit up and take note. Social jet lag is thought to affect more than 80% of us in Europe, particularly if you’re a city dweller.

Oat cookies with lucuma syrup
Oat cookies with lucuma syrup

If you do skip meals, then the researchers argued that you’re also more likely to make poorer choices when it comes to food. During the review, they discovered that many studies have found a link between how regularly we eat and what we choose to eat.

You Are How You Eat

Another point they say should be researched more is ‘with whom we eat’ – or, as we like to put it, you are how you eat1. Just how much of our health can be dictated by how we choose to eat our meals? And does it help to eat mindfully, sitting down surrounded by friends and family?

Interestingly, the authors also believe that there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that sitting down to family meals can lead to healthy eating habits in children and adolescents.

World’s Healthiest Diets

When you hop across the Channel, the French tend to eat together as a household and will often enjoy three meals a day. In fact, many of the world’s healthiest diets2 will see a pattern around how to eat, and most will enjoy food with their loved ones – what’s more, diets such as the Mediterranean diet, have even been found to lower our rate of depression3.

On the flip side, us Brits will eat on-the-go (with the smallest amount of energy coming from our breakfasts and the most from dinner), which leads to a higher consumption of ready-prepared and take-away meals, more meal skipping and calorie-dense snack foods such as crisps.

One of the trials they reviewed showed that there was greater weight loss and improved blood sugar levels in overweight and obese women who ate more calories in the morning than in the evening.

What Next?

As a result of these reviews, the researchers have called for more work to be done to see exactly when we should eat over the course of a day.

As Dr Gerda Pot, Visiting Lecturer in the Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division at King’s College London, 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.

“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.”

The one thing that is clear: skipping meals won’t lead to weight loss, so eat sensibly, and eat right!

Sam Hadadi Signature

  1. You Are How You Eat
  2. Which Is the World’s Healthiest Diet?
  3. Studies on the Mediterranean Diet and Depression

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