A new report from the American Heart Association, published in the journal Circulation, finds that when and how often people eat may affect risk factors for heart attack, stroke and other cardiac diseases.
The report — a snapshot of current scientific evidence on the link between the timing of meals and heart disease factors — looked at the health effects of skipping breakfast, intermittent fasting, meal frequency (how many times a day a person eats) and the timing of meals.
The various organs of the body have their own internal clocks based on food supply, researchers said, and this may affect how we metabolize our meals at different times of the day. For example, studies find that those who eat breakfast within two hours of waking have lower heart disease risk factors, like high cholesterol and blood pressure, compared to those who skip breakfast. Breakfast skippers (those who didn’t eat until lunch) also have a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
Eating dinner late at night or snacking until the wee hours can also play havoc with your health. Eating later in the evening makes it “harder for the body to process glucose [sugar], compared with earlier in the day,” study author Marie-Pierre St-Onge, associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University, told HealthDay News.
She also said a prolonged fast at night, when metabolism slows, is better than a long fast during the day when metabolism is at its highest.
But researchers cautioned that studies on the timing of meals are observational and difficult to translate into hard-and-fast rules. They even shied away from declaring that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. After all, the studies didn’t look at whether breakfast eaters had other healthy habits that cause their lower cholesterol, not just the fact that they always had a morning meal.
Still, the report offered these eating guidelines for reducing your risk factors for heart disease and type 2 diabetes:
- Spread out your calories during a defined part of the day and try to eat most of your calories earlier in the day rather than later.
- Avoid eating late at night; aim for consistent overnight fasts.
- Stick to a set schedule of eating at planned intervals. A haphazard eating schedule is worse for heart health and makes it harder to maintain a healthy weight.
- Plan your meals and snacks during the day to help manage hunger and control portions, and to avoid relying on low-nutrient, high-calorie convenience foods.