When it comes to picking the healthier diet, we often receive some confusing information. Some recommended limiting fats while others encourage cutting back on carbs. Some recommend eating several small meals a day while others swear fasting is the way to go. Even health experts often disagree about the type and timing of meals when it comes to optimal health. Regardless of the diet plan you choose; however, recent studies suggest that when you eat is as important as what. As it turns out, a circadian diet could provide us with the best chances to stay healthy and fit.
So, what exactly is a circadian diet? A circadian diet is one that attempts to match the timing of meals with our bodies’ own internal clock. If we choose to eat when our bodies are best prepared, positive health benefits should follow. That means restricting our meals to those times when we are best able to digest and metabolize food. This seems pretty logical from a common sense perspective. However, very few people limit the timing of meals and instead eat from morning to bedtime. Eating this way is counterintuitive when it comes to our bodies’ daily rhythms. And it plays a significant role in a variety of poor health conditions.
Syncing Up with Your Circadian Rhythms
While human beings have evolved over the centuries, one thing has stayed the same. Every morning the sun rises, and every evening night emerges. This cyclical event happens every day, and it’s no surprise the human body has adapted accordingly. Our bodies also have their own daily cycle that tends to match up with the changes in our environments. Scientists call the body’s daily cycle a circadian rhythm, and interestingly, it affects every organ in our body. Essentially each organ in body regulates hormones, enzymes, and other cellular activities according to this cycle. And it’s at its best when it’s in sync with environmental rhythms.
Whether you realize it or not, you have likely experienced the effects of an out-of-sync circadian rhythm. If you’ve ever traveled overseas, the time difference between your departure and destination locales affected you. For most people, this results in fatigue, brain fog, and irritability, better known as jet lag. Your brain gets used to the light and dark cycles where you have been. The sudden change, however, throws it for a loop, and it has a hard time adjusting. Believe it or not, the same thing can happen in other organs as well. Thus, when the timing of meals fails to match day-night cycles, problems can arise. This is why some research that time-restricted eating and circadian diet might be beneficial.
Studies Supporting a Circadian Diet
For a long time, researchers only believed the brain exhibited a circadian rhythm. But multiple studies now show that most organs also have similar daily patterns. For example, research has shown that the pancreas tends to produce insulin in the highest amounts in the morning. Then as the day proceeds, insulin secretion becomes much less. Likewise, the GI tract has a microbiome “clock” where enzyme production, absorption and elimination are tightly regulated. When our timing of meals fails to align with these patterns, then metabolism and digestion are affected. But linking our eating habits to these daily tendencies, which is what the circadian diet suggests, we thrive. The key is eating when our bodies are best prepared so we optimize our digestive health.
One of the most recent studies supporting a circadian diet involved a trial involving prediabetic men. Half of the participants in the study ate within a six-hour window each day while the others snacked and ate over 12 hours. Once the study was over, those with a shorter eating window fared much better. They showed lower insulin levels, less inflammation, and lower blood pressure. Simply by limiting the timing of meals to the times when their bodies functioned better, they improved. All of this suggests that when it comes to healthy diets, our meal schedule matters a great deal.
Risks from Being Out-of-Sync
In a circadian diet works because of better timing of meals, what happens when we’re out of sync. Interestingly, researchers have explored this as well. In one study, they compared shift workers with those who work normal daytime schedules. After looking at significant numbers of people over a long time, it was evident some risks for disease were greater. Shift workers had higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease when compared to daytime workers. They also had a higher risk for some cancers. Given that shift workers represent a fifth of the workforce, these findings are concerning. This lends support to the notion that our timing of meals is important.
Like our brains, other organs in our bodies need downtime in order to recover each day. Their internal clocks tells then when to ramp up activities and when to ramp down. But if environmental cues don’t sync up with their internal clock, the result is fatigue, stress, and less-than-optimal function. This is when illness and disease become more likely, and it’s why the timing of meals, light exposure, and other cues matter. If we want to give our bodies the best chance to function well and recover, paying attention to schedules is important. And for our digestive health, this might mean giving a circadian diet a try.
The Ideal Approach to Diet
At this time, research suggests that front-loading the timing of meals may be the way to go. In other words, an effective circadian diet would likely eat the largest meals early in the day and then taper off. Adopting these meal habits and limiting eating to an 8-hour window appears to best align with the body’s natural biorhythms. Of course, it is still important to choose your foods wisely to optimize your health. But clearly, the timing of meals plays an important role as well. Particularly for digestive health and weight management, this looks to be one strategy each of us should consider.
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