Once the kids are out of the house, you might be tempted to throw in the (dish)towel when it comes to cooking regular meals. But recent studies suggest that adopting an irregular eating schedule could actually backfire.
In particular, a pair of papers published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society in 2016 suggest that it's not just what you eat, but when you eat that affects your health. Having irregular meals may set you up for obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes — regardless of how many total calories you're consuming.
One of the reviews examined international eating patterns and found a possible link between obesity and eating more calories in the evening. The other paper concluded that people who consistently ate six meals a day had better cholesterol and insulin levels than those who ate meals with variable frequency — in this case, anywhere from three to nine meals a day.
"We found that adults consuming calories during regular meals — at similar times from one day to [the] next — were less obese than people who have irregular meals, despite consuming more calories overall," says Gerda Pot, PhD, a visiting lecturer in the Diabetes and Nutritional Sciences Division at King's College London who worked on both papers.
Really? While it doesn't seem to make sense that meal timing could affect your health that much, the studies are part of an emerging field called chrononutrition, in which researchers are exploring the link between metabolism and circadian rhythms.
Many metabolic processes in the body — such as appetite, digestion, and the metabolism of fat, cholesterol, and glucose — follow patterns that repeat every 24 hours, explains Pot. "Eating inconsistently may affect our internal body clock," she says. And that disruption might lead to weight gain and other health risks–particularly troubling to women after menopause, when they're more likely to gain weight — an average of 5 pounds, according to some statistics — possibly because their metabolism slows down and they lose more muscle mass.
But just how significant is the effect of varying your meal times?
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"This is a really important and valid question which we unfortunately cannot answer yet," says Pot. "It would be of great interest to fully understand how much impact disruptions in our circadian rhythms could have on [our] obesity risk."
So for now, it seems like a good idea to eat at the same times every day if you can. But if you can't, there are plenty of other ways to stay healthy, too.
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