Does When and How Often I Eat Matter?

There are plenty of ways to eat, and they are not equal in their effect on your weight and heart health. Recently the American Heart Association investigated this topic and published a scientific statement about meal planning and the timing and frequency of eating.

“Meal timing may affect health due to its impact on the body’s internal clock. In animal studies, it appears that when animals receive food while in an inactive phase, such as when they are sleeping, their internal clocks are reset in a way that can alter nutrient metabolism, resulting in greater weight gain, insulin resistance and inflammation. However, more research would need to be done in humans before that can be stated as a fact,” said Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., writing group chair and an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University in New York City.

For instance, there is a link between eating breakfast and having lower heart disease risk factors. Studies have found that people who eat breakfast daily are less likely to have high cholesterol and blood pressure and that people who skip breakfast — about 20 percent to 30 percent of U.S. adults — are more likely to be obese, have inadequate nutrition, show evidence of impaired glucose metabolism or be diagnosed with diabetes.

In addition to eating breakfast, avoiding late-night eating and mindful meal-planning are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, blood vessel diseases and stroke. However, current research doesn’t dictate the best approach.

“There’s conflicting evidence about meal frequency,” said St-Onge. Studies have shown the benefit of intermittent fasting and eating smaller, frequent meals throughout the day.

Fasting every other day helped people lose weight in the short term, but its long-term effects haven’t been studied. And there’s no guarantee that it can be sustained.

There are concerns about fasting. “Intermittent fasting can backfire,” said Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., R.D., a statement co-author and nutrition professor at Penn State University. For example, people who fast one day could eat more than twice as much the next day. There’s not a lot of information about how people could practice intermittent fasting, so she cautioned against using it as a weight management strategy.

Eating frequent meals has also been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease risk factors. One study showed that men who ate more than four times a day had a lower risk of obesity than those eating three or fewer times a day. But other studies have found the opposite, with a greater risk of weight gain over time in those reporting eating more frequently.

Frequent meals may also be impractical: “If you eat five to six meals, it’s hard to create a meal that’s so small that you aren’t overeating at each of the sessions,” St-Onge said.

Eating dinner or snacking late at night had a detrimental effect on weight and heart health. This may be due to how eating late affects the body’s internal clock, which responds to circadian rhythms when metabolizing food and absorbing nutrients. Circadian rhythms also guide sleep and wake cycles. Emerging evidence shows that the liver and other organs have their own clocks that also affect metabolism, which may also explain why late night snacks and meals are detrimental. Animal studies suggest that eating during times usually spent sleeping led to weight gain, insulin resistance and inflammation, but that hasn’t been shown in humans.

“We suggest eating mindfully, by paying attention to planning both what you eat and when you eat meals and snacks, to combat emotional eating. Many people find that emotions can trigger eating episodes when they are not hungry, which often leads to eating too many calories from foods that have low nutritional value,” St-Onge said.

Given people’s busy lives, setting time aside to eat without distraction is vital. “All activities have a place in a busy schedule, including healthy eating and being physically active. Those activities should be planned ahead of time and adequate time should be devoted to them,” she said.

The science may not yet be definitive on when and how often to eat or not eat, but the statement was emphatic that it is still important to eat a healthy diet, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry and fish, while limiting red meat, salt and foods high in added sugars.

Source: American Heart Association News

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