Eating According to Your Circadian Rhythms

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Eating According to Your Circadian Rhythms

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

“Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and have dinner like a pauper.” 

Chances are you’ve heard at least one of these sayings, if not both. But did you know recent research shows there’s actually solid scientific evidence that links the timing of our eating to health outcomes? According to the New York Times, “A growing body of research suggests that our bodies function optimally when we align our eating patterns with our circadian rhythms, the innate 24-hour cycles that tell our bodies when to wake up, when to eat and when to fall asleep.”

How Circadian Rhythms Affect Digestion

It’s a bit more complicated than just eating a big breakfast. The idea behind eating according to your circadian rhythms is based on the fact that we function on 24 hour cycles. Our bodies typically rest during the night, when natural light is low. Research shows that your body “knows” this.

Dr. Satchinanda Panda, of the Salk Institute, is an expert in circadian rhythms. His research shows that if you restrict eating to an 8 to 12 hour window every day, it can improve your health. He says, “We’re designed to have 24-hour rhythms in our physiology and metabolism. These rhythms exist because, just like our brains need to go to sleep each night to repair, reset and rejuvenate, every organ needs to have down time to repair and reset as well.”

Not only does your body have a master clock that controls your sleep/wake cycle, but each of your organs has its own inner clock that regulates its function. For example, your pancreas produces more insulin during the day than it does at night. In fact, all of your organs turn things down at night, the time when your body needs to rest and repair. 

This means that eating and drinking late at night can “confuse” your body. During digestion, your stomach and other digestive organs need to be “awake.” If you introduce food and drink when your body is entering sleep mode, it can adversely affect your health. 

In fact, studies of people who must stay awake at night, like third shift workers, show that they suffer a variety of health problems. According to the National Sleep Foundation, such sleep patterns are linked to increased risk of cancer, obesity, heart disease, ulcers, and gastrointestinal problems. 

Meal Timing and Weight Loss

In the often frustrating quest to lose weight and keep it off, some dieters are now focusing not only on what they eat, but when. Some research shows that eating in harmony with your circadian rhythms supports weight loss. For example, a 2013 study published in the journal Obesity, looked at two groups of overweight or obese women with metabolic syndrome. The two groups of women consumed the same number of daily calories. However, one group ate a high calorie breakfast while the other ate a high calorie dinner. After 12 weeks, the high calorie breakfast eaters showed greater weight loss. They also lost more waist size and reduced their resting glucose levels more significantly. They even reported feeling less hungry during the day.

The researchers stated, “Meal timing has crucial implications on weight gain, appetite, and glucose and lipid metabolism.”

Continue to eat a nutrient-rich and balanced diet, but experiment with timing. You don’t necessarily need to eat a big breakfast or lunch. You just need to break free from the eating pattern of many of us, which is to start eating or drinking soon after waking up and not fully stop until close to bedtime. Most people eat during a 15 hour window each day. If you shave off a few hours from that and restrict eating to an 8 to 12 hour window, you could see some health benefits. 

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