WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
What you eat impacts your health and risk of developing diet-related diseases. Research shows that meal timing may influence the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD).*
WHAT THIS MEANS
There are several building blocks essential to establishing a healthy lifestyle. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, protein, legumes, whole grains and healthy fats is one component. Another is regular bouts of moderate to vigorous physical activity and exercise for about 30 minutes (or more!) every day. Providing your body with adequate sleep (about 7-8 hours each night) is key. Limiting and managing stress and developing strong, meaningful relationships are other important factors.
Not only is what you eat important, but when you eat is also important. A new statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) summarizes the research on meal timing and frequency. This research is valuable because the eating habits of Americans have changed in recent years. Americans are eating fewer meals and more snacks, and it is unclear how these changes may affect our long-term health. For example, only 63% of women and 59% of men eat 3 standard meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) every day. While Americans may not be eating standard meals, we are eating smaller meals around the clock. On average, Americans are reporting 4.2 to 10.5 eating occasions per day.
WHY THIS MATTERS
CVD includes heart disease, heart failure, stroke, heart attack, arrhythmia and heart valve issues. There are several cardiometabolic health markers that predict the risk of developing CVD, including obesity, lipid profile, insulin resistance and blood pressure. Meal timing may influence these health markers.
Most studies on meal timing have focused on late-night eating habits. These studies show seemingly negative health effects of eating very late in the day (after 7:00pm). Late-night eating is associated with poor cardiometabolic health markers in several studies. In one study, late-night eating was associated with a 62% higher rate of obesity in Swedish men compared to those with no late-night eating. In another study, participants who consumed 33% or greater total daily calories at night were twice as likely to be obese compared to those who consumed less than that amount at night. Eating larger meals late at night is often coupled with skipping breakfast the next morning. This poses issues because skipping breakfast is associated with increased risk of obesity, elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol and CVD. Skipping the first meal of the day often results in mindless snacking or overeating at the next meal.
If you eat a late meal, the body does not have the same opportunity to use those calories as it would earlier in the day. While resting and sleeping, little energy is needed and used and these calories are stored, which can lead to weight gain and insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone essential in regulating blood sugar. When insulin is unable to regulate blood sugar, insulin resistance may occur over time. Insulin resistance results in higher circulating blood sugar, which is what causes type-2 diabetes. Late-night eating patterns may increase the risk of developing type-2 diabetes.
It’s important to regularly nourish your body throughout the day to avoid skipping meals, excessive snacking and late night eating. It may not seem like a big deal to skip a meal as long as you make it up later, but this mindset is not consistent with what research has shown us. Meal timing, while seemingly insignificant, can impact your current and long-term health. If you do feel hungry at night after you’ve eaten dinner, choose fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes and proteins instead of foods high in refined sugars, sugar-sweetened beverages and alcohol. These items are calorically dense, offer little to no nutritional value, and raise your blood sugar as you rest.
More research is needed to understand the role that meal timing has on cardiovascular health. The AHA recommends using an “Intentional Approach to Eating” method to avoid weight gain and to manage cardiometabolic health markers. We endorse using this guideline as you maintain or develop a balanced, healthy lifestyle.
Intentional Approach to Eating
- Develop an intentional approach to eating that focuses on the timing and frequency of meals and snacks as the basis of a healthier lifestyle and improved risk factor management.
- Distribute calories over a defined portion of the day.
- Eat a greater share of the total calorie intake earlier in the day to have positive effects on risk factors for heart disease and diabetes mellitus.
- Promote consistent overnight fast periods.
- Link eating episodes to influence subsequent energy intake (ie, place snacks strategically before meals that might be associated with overeating).
- Include intermittent fasting approaches as an option to help lower calorie intake and to reduce body weight.
- Use added eating episodes to introduce a wider variety of healthful food options and to displace less healthful foods.
- Use planned meals and snacks timed throughout the day to help manage hunger and to achieve portion control.
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