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When to eat – Why it matters and How to start?

Eating food may sound very simple, but it's the simple mistakes we make that make a huge difference. It is important to know that when it comes to eating, the "when" is also key.

How often do you delay or skip your meals? How often do you eat right before bedtime? Do you have long gaps between meals or are you eating throughout the day over 16 hours? The best times to eat can be a tricky question to answer.

It is well established that the quantity and quality of the food we consume can affect our health. Almost all animals and humans evolved on this planet with a very strong 24-hour rhythm in light and darkness and the associated rhythms in eating and fasting.

Circadian clocks are a biological timing system found in virtually every cell of the body that coordinate the timing of our daily behaviours (e.g., sleep/wake, feeding/fasting) and physiology (e.g., hormone release, heart function). These clocks also incorporate signals from the environment, such as light and food, to coordinate our internal biology with our surroundings. These clocks are kept in synchrony with each other, and with the time of day outside, through signals from a part of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). And its window to the outside world is a subset of light-responsive cells at the back of the eye called intrinsically photoreceptive retinal ganglion cells.

When your biological clocks are out of sync your health can be negatively affected.

For example, Your body is best at digesting food/drinks when you are active and sunlight is present. Thus, eating/drinking when your body expects you to sleep/rest, and it is dark, can disrupt this system and compromise metabolism. In contrast, a consistent daily cycle of eating and fasting may nurture a healthy circadian clock, ready digestive system and optimize metabolism.

Eating at consistent times is important for robust circadian rhythms. Thus frequent changes in our mealtime from day to day may compromise physiology, similar to how sleep patterns are disturbed after an abrupt change in time zone (i.e., jet lag). Mobile apps that monitor peoples’ eating habits have found that many people have erratic eating patterns, such as eating and sleeping at different times on weekdays versus weekend (or non-work) days. Irregular eating patterns have been associated with obesity, T2D, and CVD. Therefore, having a consistent daily eating time may be beneficial for health.

In one of the recent studies, researchers compared the physical effects of sleeping for five hours per night for eight days continuously, with getting the same quantity of sleep but at irregular times. In both groups, people’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin dropped and systemic inflammation increased, elevating the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It is noticed that these effects were even greater in men - the reduction in insulin sensitivity and increase in inflammation doubled.

Insulin sensitivity (needed to regulate blood sugar) is greater in the morning. Thus, larger meals are processed better when eaten in the first half of the day. Conversely, since melatonin (released at night) reduces insulin release, the body is not able to process glucose properly when you eat late at night or very early in the morning when melatonin is high. Therefore, eating larger meals earlier in the day and avoiding food for at least 3-4 hours prior to bedtime has better health benefits.

Human studies found that eating close to when levels of the sleep hormone melatonin start to rise (i.e., close to bedtime), is associated with having more body fat and high insulin levels. A small study in adults found that late-night eating increases blood sugar levels after the meal and the following day and late-night eating is associated with obesity and a greater risk of poor cardiometabolic health.

The general population maintains a different sleep schedule on weekdays, compared to weekends, resulting in social jet lag. People also tend to eat breakfast at least an hour later at the weekends, which can result in so-called “metabolic-jetlag”.

Time-restricted Eating (TRE)

TRE is a new meal-timing strategy that involves eating and drinking all of your daily calories within a consistent 8 to 10 hour window, or lesser, daily intervals. Evidence suggests that TRE may improve metabolism and cardiovascular health by boosting circadian function.

Studies in humans have tested daily eating duration of 4 to 11 h/day and found that TRE decreases blood pressure, improves blood sugar, and can help with weight, energy levels, sleep, and appetite.

Instead of eating meals in huge chunks, think about the benefits of maintaining your energy levels at a consistent rate during the day. Scheduling your meals and snacks within 8-10 hours, and building a healthy diet, helps in maximizing digestive health while preventing the development of cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes and obesity.

Both what you eat and when you eat are important factors for weight gain and high insulin resistance.


Let’s take a look at what a healthy eating schedule looks like for the day.

  • After an hour of waking up, your body has processed all the nutrients during your sleep and is ready to build energy. Choose high plant protein, high-fiber and low sugar options to provide long-lasting energy without crashing mid-morning.

  • About 3 hours later, a light, low-calorie snack such as fruit should keep you energized until lunch.

  • Around 12 pm, about 5 hours after your breakfast, your body will need a bigger boost to keep your metabolism engaged. Here you should focus on whole grains, legumes, vegetables combined with some healthy fats and lots of fiber to keep you satiated.

  • When you start to feel those afternoon grumbles kicking in, about 3 hours after lunch, again head for a light and low-calorie snack.

  • Finally, around 6 - 7 pm, your dinner should include protein from legumes and beans, complex carbs from whole grains, and plenty of vegetables.

  • Avoid food intake close to bedtime, while sleeping, or very early morning, when melatonin levels are high.

The goal is to eat every 3 to 4 hours within 8-10 hour window to keep your blood sugar consistent and for your stomach to optimally digest.

Setting this schedule consistently across days can also help curb overeating which can lead to bloating or indigestion. In general, scheduling what and when you eat will help you maintain a balanced diet and create a more stable energy source, as your metabolism will be engaged at optimal levels all day long.

Sign up for a free Health Coach call to understand more about scheduled eating and create a plan for yourself.



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