When We Eat, or Don’t Eat, May Be Critical for Health
By Anahad O’Connor
•July 24, 2018
A growing body of research suggests that our bodies function optimally when we align our eating patterns with our circadian rhyth
Nutrition scientists have long debated the best diet for optimal health. But now some experts believe that it’s not just what we eat that’s critical for good health, but when we eat it.
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. Studies show that chronically disrupting this rhythm — by eating late meals or nibbling on midnight snacks, for example — could be a recipe for weight gain and metabolic trouble.
That is the premise of a new book, “The Circadian Code,” by Satchin Panda, a professor at the Salk Institute and an expert on circadian rhythms research. Dr. Panda argues that people improve their metabolic health when they eat their meals in a daily 8- to 10-hour window, taking their first bite of food in the morning and their last bite early in the evening.
This approach, known as early time-restricted feeding, stems from the idea that human metabolism follows a daily rhythm, with our hormones, enzymes and digestive systems primed for food intake in the morning and afternoon. Many people, however, snack and graze from roughly the time they wake up until shortly before they go to bed. Dr. Panda has found in his research that the average person eats over a 15-hour or longer period each day, starting with something like milk and coffee shortly after rising and ending with a glass of wine, a late night meal or a handful of chips, nuts or some other snack shortly before bed.
That pattern of eating, he says, conflicts with our biological rhythms.
Scientists have long known that the human body has a master clock in the brain, located in the hypothalamus, that governs our sleep-wake cycles in response to bright light exposure. A couple of decades ago, researchers discovered that there is not just one clock in the body but a collection of them. Every organ has an internal clock that governs its daily cycle of activity.
During the day, the pancreas increases its production of the hormone insulin, which controls blood sugar levels, and then slows it down at night. The gut has a clock that regulates the daily ebb and flow of enzymes, the absorption of nutrients and the removal of waste. The communities of trillions of bacteria that comprise the microbiomes in our guts operate on a daily rhythm as well. These daily rhythms are so ingrained that they are programmed in our DNA: Studies show that in every organ, thousands of genes switch on and switch off at roughly the same time every day.
“We’ve inhabited this planet for thousands of years, and while many things have changed, there has always been one constant: Every single day the sun rises and at night it falls,” Dr. Panda said. “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.”
Most of the evidence in humans suggests that consuming the bulk of your food earlier in the day is better for your health, said Dr. Courtney Peterson, an assistant professor in the department of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dozens of studies demonstrate that blood sugar control is best in the morning and at its worst in the evening. We burn more calories and digest food more efficiently in the morning as well.
At night, the lack of sunlight prompts the brain to release melatonin, which prepares us for sleep. Eating late in the evening sends a conflicting signal to the clocks in the rest of the body that it’s still daytime, said Dr. Peters