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For many, meals happen at random times. One night, you’re standing over the sink scarfing down takeout. The next, you join friends for dinner and share small plates.
While an erratic eating schedule seems harmless, two new studies that examined the timing of meals found that when you eat might be almost as important as what you eat.
“Eating irregularly is linked to a higher risk of metabolic syndrome (high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity),” Gerda Pot, visiting lecturer in the diabetes and nutritional sciences division at King’s College London, told TODAY via email.
“We found that adults consuming calories during regular meals, i.e. at similar times from one day to a next, were less obese than people who have irregular meals.”
In the papers, published in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, Pot and her colleagues reviewed 28 existing studies to see if there was a relationship between the timing of meals, weight gain and metabolic syndrome.
She hoped to settle the confusion about when to eat: Some people think skipping meals leads to weight loss, while others believe that eating constantly does. But the papers found that the irregularity contributes to weight gain and metabolic syndrome. What's more, eating irregular meals is related to a change in the circadian rhythm, the internal clock that controls the body’s sleep/wake cycles.
“Many nutritionally related metabolic processes in the body follow a circadian pattern such as appetite, digestion and the metabolism of fat, cholesterol and glucose. Food intake can influence our internal clocks, particularly in organs such as the liver and intestine,” said Pot.
The papers revealed the importance of having regularly scheduled meals.
Another key point: Don't skip meals because, for some people, that can lead to bingeing.
“Those people who are breakfast skippers tend to be over-consumers later in the day,” said Leslie Bonci, owner of Active Eating Advice, who wasn’t involved in the study.
The reason? People become overly hungry with less willpower, meaning when they do eat, they likely nosh on too much fatty food.
Scheduling meals and being mindful about eating helps people maintain a healthy weight and avoid metabolic syndrome, the studies show. It's consistency that counts: you can have three meals and two snacks or eat constantly throughout the day, just do it regularly.
“When it comes down to it, there is no way of eating or frequency of eating that is perfect for everyone,” said Julie Andrews, a registered dietitian at University of Wisconsin Health in Madison. “As long as we plan and really think about … eating balanced meals and snacks, we can still be perfectly healthy.”
What you eat is important, always. But thinking about when you eat and planning it might be the small change that makes a difference, Bonci says.
“What if I really tried to pay attention to when my body is hungry?” she said. “It is just one more thing we can find out and do something to our advantage.”