There’s no doubt that how you choose to fuel your body matters. But new research suggests that when you eat is important too, as writer Anna Bartter has been finding out.
They say you are what you eat, and for me lately, this means a rushed bag of tortilla chips with a and a chocolate biscuit chaser. Being naturally health-conscious and a dedicated fitness fan, I know I should be nourishing my body better – and more regularly.
And while eating more plants, for example, is an obvious way to improve health, when I read that eating at set times each day has a whole host of health benefits, I was immediately interested. So, I tried it for two weeks to see if changing the timings of my meals impacted my gut health, energy and mood.
Why is meal timing important?
According to a study published in the International Journal Of Molecular Sciences, when you eat is as important as what you eat. Researchers in the US looked at the effects of meal timing on metabolic health – in other words, how your body responds to the food that you’re eating.
They found that meal timing was an important factor in metabolic regulation, which is strongly linked to the circadian clock. This is known in scientific circles as ‘chrononutrition’, and is becoming increasingly popular as a way of managing obesity, type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases influenced by our diets.
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Metabolic health is thought to be made up of a combination of factors. Yella Hewings-Martin, senior science editor at Zoe, explains: “A large part of your metabolic health is having a healthy metabolism. This means that your body can digest and absorb nutrients from the food that you eat without unhealthy spikes in blood sugar, blood fat, inflammation and insulin.”
The theory is that timing your meals carefully can impact factors such as your sleep, hunger and fullness hormones, blood sugar regulation and inflammation levels, which Hewings-Martin explains can all contribute to “the unfavourable long-term impact of food on your health, such as high cholesterol, high levels of body fat, a large waist circumference and high blood pressure”.
So, I decided to follow the study’s suggestions for two weeks: eating breakfast before 8.30am, lunching at midday and having dinner around 6pm, giving my digestive system a good few hours to work before bed.
Breakfast before 8.30am
Scientists have found that people who eat breakfast early – before 8.30am – have lower blood sugar levels and less insulin resistance, meaning their risk of developing type 2 diabetes is lower than those who prefer brunch.
Compellingly, research also shows that daily breakfasters are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, having lower blood pressure and less harmful cholesterol levels. I’ve always eaten breakfast, but reading this has made me even more determined to ensure my body and brain are well nourished at the start of my day.
Having said this, I’m not used to eating more or less as soon as I wake up, so the first couple of days were a bit of a struggle. Being used to grabbing breakfast on the go or waiting until after a workout before enjoying a nutritious brunch, I really had to force myself to eat before 8.30am. I just wasn’t hungry, but I persevered and by day three, I was looking forward to my boiled egg and toast at 7.30am.
Eating first thing also had an unexpected impact on my productivity; I had basically ticked ‘eating’ off my to-do list early and I didn’t start to feel hungry until around 11am.
Lunch at noon
Thank goodness the science also says to eat lunch early: having had an early breakfast, I was ravenous by 12pm. Usually, that’d be way too early to eat lunch, and if I did feel hungry at noon, I normally satisfy myself with a coffee or a snack until later on.
This time, however, I ate when I was hungry, which felt really natural. I also loved feeling more in tune with my body and responding to what it was telling me, rather than ignoring my hunger pangs if they didn’t fit in with my schedule.
This resulted in more mindful eating; I planned what I was having for lunch, and made sure I chose nourishing and varied foods rather than grabbing a quick store-bought sandwich on the run. Amazingly, I wasn’t tempted to snack mid-afternoon. It was almost as though listening to my body and eating lunch early satiated me for longer.
And the benefits don’t end there – research shows that people who eat lunch early (around midday) have lower blood sugar spikes and swings than those eating later on (at 2pm, for example).
Dinner before 6pm
It’s well established that eating dinner early is associated with lower blood pressure, better insulin levels and a lower risk of developing obesity and associated issues. Clinical nutritionist Emma Ellice-Flint tells Stylist: “The timing of meals is an important aspect to health, especially as we age. Digestion slows down as we sleep, and our gut and its microbiome are working hard to maintain and repair during this time. If we eat food late in the evening, this can disrupt that cycle.”
But the reality is that in the real world, very few of us eat at 6pm, and this was the meal timing I was most concerned about trialling.
However, having three children who eat their dinner around 5.30pm most days was really handy, as I was preparing food at that time anyway. For those who are out working, eating dinner at 6pm probably isn’t that practical.
Sitting down to eat with the kids, while not always the most relaxing way to eat, was actually really nice. We chatted more than we usually do, and eating together meant being more mindful about how full I felt.
Usually, I’d be ravenous by 6pm and tide myself over until dinner with snacks… and then not feel all that hungry by the time I sat down for dinner. This way, I didn’t need to snack; I was eating my main meal exactly when hunger usually struck – coincidence or nature?
From a practical perspective, I had to be organised – prepping ahead to ensure that a nutritious meal was ready to serve the moment I logged off. That meant making a vat of chilli and eating that pretty much every evening for the first week (not the most diverse diet, admittedly), but by week two, I got into the swing of things.
A welcome side effect, as someone with IBS, was noticeably less bloating in the evenings – a big win.
Eating earlier: the effects on energy, sleep and hunger
The biggest surprise in the experiment was that I didn’t feel like snacking in the evenings. Usually, I’m partial to a post-dinner chocolate or three, and I was convinced that by eating dinner so early, I’d be starving by 9pm.
I was surprised, then, to find that aside from the occasional snack, my hunger was more or less sated until the next morning.
Better sleep (on early dinner days)
As a rule, I sleep pretty well, passing out more or less as soon as my head hits the pillow. Halfway through the trial, I ate dinner with my husband at the weekend, as I would normally do, and I noticed that I woke up in the middle of the night with heartburn.
It could just have been a coincidence, or maybe I’ve become more aware of my hunger cycle, but either way, it made me sit up and take notice.
You’d think that eating earlier in the day would give you more energy, but honestly, I didn’t notice any significant difference in my daily energy levels during the trial. Being a fairly high-octane person anyway, I felt just as full of beans as usual, despite my constant low-level tiredness (who else can relate?). But given the other benefits I noticed from bringing my meals forward, it’s still a win.
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“What’s important is sticking to regular meals; the timing of those meals can be individual,” reassures Ellice-Flint. “Eating healthy meals that are nourishing and leave you feeling satisfied after eating is the goal.”
The science agrees, as data shows that irregular eating patterns do have a negative impact on cardiometabolic health. Research conducted by the American Heart Association advises “intentional eating with mindful attention to the timing and frequency of eating occasions could lead to healthier lifestyle and cardiometabolic risk factor management”.
They say a leopard never changes its spots, but having gone back to my usual eating patterns for a few days, I can safely say I feel healthier and happier about my diet generally when I stick to these set meal times. It feels intuitive to respond to my body’s hunger signals and, in turn, I am much more aware of them. And that can only be a good thing.
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