You know that what you eat and how much you eat are important. But how often do you pay attention to when you eat?
Chrono-nutrition, or the intelligent planning of meals, is a game-changing approach that will optimize body composition, while enhancing health and physical performance.
Why Is Chrono-Nutrition So Important?
Along with exposure to light, food is a primary regulator of our biorhythms, also known as our circadian rhythms. Cells throughout the body have clock genes that regulate their activity throughout the day. Eating at the wrong times can disrupt clock genes, negatively impacting metabolic function and increasing risk of obesity.
Poorly timed eating also hampers sleep, harms digestion, and increases risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. Hormones get out of balance, inflammation peaks, cognition is negatively affected, and mood often takes a nosedive.
The good news is that with a little foresight and planning, you can synch your nutrition with your biorhythms, getting a boost in physical and mental performance. This article will give you seven chrono-nutrition tips to maximize your health and fitness.
#1: Eat At Consistent Times
Think about your regular schedule and you’ll notice that you tend to do certain things at the same time every day: You go to bed, wake up, feel hungry, and experience an afternoon lull on a consistent schedule. This is due to our circadian function, or biorhythm, which is controlled by clock genes located in cells throughout the body.
Food is a primary regulator of our clock genes. Skipping meals or eating at random times changes the activity of genes, altering circadian function. For example, meal skipping stimulates elevations in hormones that “turn feeding on,” such as ghrelin and neuropeptide Y, making it more likely you will overshoot your calorie needs and gain body fat.
On the other hand, eating at consistent times can improve circadian function and help ease other activities, including sleep, waking up in the morning, digestion, and stress management. For example, when you have a set meal time, enzymes involved in digestion are released in preparation for breaking down food. The stomach begins contracting (making the rumbling noise that we associate with hunger) in preparation for incoming nutrients.
#2: Eat 2 To 4 Meals Daily
Unless you are a bodybuilder trying to put on as much mass as possible, choosing a lower eating frequency of 2 to 4 meals a day is recommended. First, when you are eating 6+ meals a day, noshing every 2 hours, your digestive system never gets a chance to rest. Food-free time is important because the GI tract is not designed to be continuously digesting food.
In fact, an important part of digestions is gut motility, which occurs once digestion is finished. The muscles of GI tract stretch and contract, enabling food to progress through the intestines while, at the same time, ensuring absorption of nutrients.
Second, organs throughout the body have their own unique biorhythm. The liver, which processes carbohydrates and fats, and the pancreas, which makes insulin, contain clock genes that regulate activity. Studies show that grazing and frequent meals impair the circadian function of these organs, encouraging the development of metabolic problems. In animal studies, prolonged feeding results in insulin resistance and impaired lipid (fat) regulation that leads to fatty liver.
Finally, incorporating long (overnight) and short (between daytime meals) fasting improves the body’s metabolic flexibility or the ability to burn body fat for energy. When people eat frequently (ever 2 hours of less), blood sugar is the primary fuel source and they never develop the metabolic machinery necessary for burning body fat. Not only will metabolic flexibility help with weight management, you avoid food cravings, hunger, and diabetes.
#3: Plan Meals At Least 4 Hours Apart
Frequent meals have a lot of drawbacks:
They impede the circadian function of metabolic organs like the liver (which runs on a 4-hour clock) and the pancreas.
They keep blood sugar and insulin elevated, never allowing the body to shift into fat burning mode.
They reduce levels of fat burning enzymes, impairing metabolic flexibility or the ability to use both glucose and fat for energy.
They are inconvenient, taking a lot of time that could be used for other things.
Choosing a lower meal frequency (2 to 4 meals a day) and eating about every 4 hours can allow you to prevent excessive hunger, while avoiding the negative metabolic effects of chronic eating.
#4: Eat During Daylight
How often do you skip meals all day and then eat everything in your kitchen after dark when you get home?
Eating the majority of your calories at night is associated with obesity and metabolic disorders like diabetes because it hampers circadian function and hormone release. Think about our ancestors—they hunted, gathered, and ate during daylight, fasting from dusk til dawn.
Adopting a similar pattern can even aid with weight loss: One study found that when overweight volunteers ate the majority of their calories earlier in the day (700 calories at breakfast, 500 at lunch, and only 200 at dinner) they lost more weight more than a group that had the opposite eating pattern (200 calories at breakfast, 500 at lunch, and 700 at dinner).
Scientists theorize that consuming the majority of calories earlier in the day improves circadian function and subsequent hormone release for better metabolic function.
#5: Use A 10- to 12-Hour Eating Window
Recent studies show that the average person is eating their entire waking day, with most people noshing over the course of 15 hours. Not only does this constant eating disrupt circadian function, it leads to greater calorie intake and worse metabolic health.
Animal studies show that shortening the feeding time to less than 12 hours can prevent fat gain even when subjects are fed obesity-inducing high-fat, high-sugar diets. Human studies suggest something similar (although you should strive for a healthy, low-sugar diet), with optimal eating windows varying between 8 and 12 hours a day.
For example, when overweight volunteers limited their eating to a 10-hour window with 14 hours of overnight fasting they lost an average of 3.27 kg without active dieting. They also had improvements in sleep satisfaction and a decrease in hunger.
#6: Time Your Carbohydrates
When you feel like snacking, you probably reach for carb-rich foods like crackers, chips, sweets, etc. Carbs are rewarding, leading to a dopamine hit in the brain that makes you feel good. Unfortunately, this tendency can impair circadian function and throw metabolic hormones out of whack.
A better solution is to limit intake of higher carb foods to post-workout and dinner. Eating carbohydrates after exercise ensures that those calories are used to replenish glycogen—the energy source in the muscle.
Dinner is another perfect time to have carbs because carbohydrates trigger a prolonged insulin release, which initiates a hormonal cascade that reduces the stress hormone cortisol, helping you unwind from the day.
Carbs also stimulate the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and tryptophan. Serotonin boosts mood and has a calming, satisfying effect on the brain, while tryptophan is a sleep aid. Serotonin also improves sleep because the body uses it to synthesize melatonin. For example, studies show that including cereal grains and beans at dinner has been shown to improve serotonin and melatonin release for better sleep at night.
#7: Front Load Protein
Research shows most people are eating too much protein at the wrong times. Namely, we need more high-quality protein at breakfast and less at dinner.
Getting protein at breakfast is a must because it triggers protein synthesis and gives your muscles their first chance to rebuild after going 10 to 12 hours without food. Protein-rich animal foods provide vitamin B12, which improves alertness and concentration and helps reduce the daytime sleepiness phase. Protein also has a satiating effect and spreading your intake out over the course of the day will help you make better food choices so that you don’t overshoot your calorie intake.