Why resetting meal times and listening to your body clock is key to weight loss

SPENT the start of this year trying to eat more fruit and veg, and less cake and beige food?

Congratulations, but you could be missing a trick.

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Resetting your eating clock can help you to drop those extra pounds[/caption]

A flurry of studies now suggest timing could be everything where food is concerned.

It seems your body responds differently to the same meals when eaten at different times of the day, and that how long you go between food could be crucial.

Plus, simply altering the timing of meals rather than what’s on your plate could help with weight loss.

It’s an area of research that’s been dubbed chrononutrition (from the Greek word meaning time).

Facts and figures

  • 6 — 8 hours: How long food takes to pass through the stomach and small intestine.
  • 20 minutes: The time it takes the brain to register you’re full.
  • 47 hours: How long it takes women to fully digest a meal (from fork to, er, flush). Men’s digestion is quicker, taking an average of 33 hours from start to finish.

“In the next few years you’ll see a lot of research being done in this area,” says Dr Jonathan Johnston, a chronobiologist from the University of Surrey.

So how do you make your diet work 24/7?

Listen to your body clock

When we eat matters because of how it interacts with our body clock, or more accurately, body clocks, plural.

We all have a “master clock“ in a part of our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (catchy, eh?), which controls whether we feel tired or awake.

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Listen to your body clock and eat when your body is expecting you to do so[/caption]

It’s only relatively recently that scientists discovered we also have clocks inside every single cell in our body that work in sync with this master clock.

So your liver has its own internal clock, as do your intestines and your fat cells – and the master clock keeps them running on time.
“All kinds of processes are affected by these internal clocks,” explains Gerda Pot, visiting lecturer in nutritional sciences at King’s College London.

“These include appetite, digestion, blood-sugar levels and metabolism of fat.”

We all have our own internal rhythm and it’s time we listened more to our bodies

Gerda Pot, King’s College London

This means your body naturally has times when it’s best placed to deal with food – but it can easily become confused.

“If you’re messing with your clock by eating irregularly, this could increase your risk of obesity and other chronic diseases such as diabetes,” she adds.

“We all have our own internal rhythm and it’s time we listened more to our bodies. In general, it’s not great to eat late at night, but it could be that it works for you.

“Sticking to regular meal times seems to be important for metabolism,” says Gerda.

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Sticking to a regular meal plan can also help with loosing weight[/caption]

“One study we did based on people’s food diaries found that those who ate irregularly – so a big lunch one day, but then skipping it entirely the next – were more likely to be obese, despite having a lower calorie intake overall compared to people who ate regularly. It’s about eating when your body is expecting you to do so.”

In other words, stick to the same meal times as much as you can – including at weekends (Sunday lie-in permitting).

Switch kebabs for a big brekkie

“There seems to be some truth in the old adage ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper’,” says Jonathan.

“Research shows it’s probably better to have more of your calories in the morning than late at night. One study found dieters who ate a higher proportion of their daily calories in the morning lost more weight than those who ate a higher proportion in the evening – even though both groups ate the same number of calories overall.

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Follow the old adage ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper’[/caption]

“We’ve known for a while that if you have an identical meal during the day and at night, the way you process and absorb that food will be very different – you get a much higher concentration of sugar and fat in the blood after a meal eaten at night.”

Over time, this could potentially lead to weight gain, so try to skip that late-night kebab and have a big hangover breakfast or brunch instead.

Why Brunch is better than breakfast

If eating first thing isn’t for you, having your first meal of the day in the brunch zone (10-11.30am) might be just as good.

A University of Surrey study last year asked half of those surveyed to delay their breakfast by 90 minutes and eat their dinner 90 minutes earlier than usual, and found that those participants lost twice as much body fat compared to volunteers who ate at their usual times – even though both groups consumed the same number of calories.

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Eating your breakfast later at brunch time (10-11.30am) might help to loose those extra pounds[/caption]

“We didn’t ask them to change what they ate, they didn’t need to have three meals a day if they didn’t want to and they could have snacks,” says Jonathan, who led the research.

“We don’t know exactly why it seems to have a benefit, but it could be that by eating breakfast later and dinner earlier than normal, people were consuming calories at times when the body is best able to deal with them.”

Fasting could fix unhealthy eating

Just as important as when you eat is when you don’t eat, says Jonathan.

“If you can have periods of relatively long fasting, this could be beneficial to your metabolism,” he explains.

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With the 16:8 diet you eat all your food within an eight-hour window and fast for the other 16 hours[/caption]

It’s an idea known as time-restricted feeding (or TRF), one version of which is the 16:8 diet, where you eat all your food within an eight-hour window and fast for the other 16 hours.

“Fasting helps to keep your internal clocks in sync,” says Gerda.

This is because your clocks use certain cues – including meals and then the period of not eating that follows – to keep to schedule, so your metabolism and digestion can function at their best.

“If you’re constantly snacking, your body doesn’t have the chance to reset and keep its proper timing,” she warns.

Fasting helps to keep your internal clocks in sync

Gerda Pot, King’s College London

In other words, your digestive system may not realise when you need to eat again and may not burn energy as efficiently.

A 2018 study found that overweight adults who ate only between 10am and 6pm for 12 weeks reduced their calorie intake by an average of 300 calories a day and lost around 3% body weight – even though they could eat whatever they wanted.

Should night workers avoid eating on the job?

The fact that the body doesn’t seem to deal so well with eating after dark could be one reason why research has found people who work nights or do shift work are more likely to struggle with their weight – and are also more at risk from cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

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Research has found that people working nights are more likely to struggle with their weight[/caption]

The British Dietetic Association recently argued that more research needs to be done to establish whether people who work nights need specific dietary recommendations, including guidelines on timing “to offset the effect of eating out of sync with our body clock”.

One ongoing study in Australia is looking at whether asking night-shift workers to avoid eating between 1am and 6am can improve markers of metabolic health, such as the level of sugar and fat in the blood.

Watch this space.

  • Sources: University of Illinois, Indiana University and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Mayo Clinic.

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