Everything You Need to Know About Chrononutrition

The idea that there are optimum times to take your meals as well as bad times to eat is nothing new. You’ve probably heard or read hundreds of arguments for or against breakfast, diet tips that would include points about avoiding midnight snacks and so on. Going even further back, Ayurveda, the ancient medicine system from India, emphasizes meal timing as a key factor to good health.

This concept—which is also present in some shape or form throughout most traditional healing systems—has been validated time and again in modern studies. Of course, like just about anything health-related, there’s no magic formula that’s the be-all and end-all of meal timing. But we do know for sure that meal timing plays a critical role in maintaining good health.

Today we have a new term for coordinating meals with our body’s natural rhythms: chrononutrition.

The “WHY”

So, why—and to what extent—does chrononutrition matter? The answer to this question could fill multiple books and research papers covering everything from how the human body’s “master clock” (the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the hypothalamus, if you want to be technical about it) works to how some body functions follow patterns governed by “peripheral clocks” and son on and so forth.

In short, our bodies are designed to function in a cycle, which we call the circadian rhythm. Two major factors regulate this rhythm. The first is light exposure and the second food. Just like how staring at your phone deep into the night or leaving the lights of your bedroom on can throw your body out of whack, eating at the wrong time can disrupt your metabolic functions, cause hormone imbalances and increase the risk of various health ailments.

The “HOW”

As with anything related to health and diet, there’s no such thing as a “one size fits all” solution. This is also true with chrono-nutrition, especially when you consider that nowadays, getting a full eight hours of sleep a day is a luxury for most urban dwellers and getting to bed at a reasonable hour is even more unlikely. Still, there are several basic chrono-nutrition tips that most people can easily fit into their daily schedules.

1. Be consistent

When you are able to eat at consistent times, your body will become better at preparing to receive food (from contracting your stomach which will make it rumble to releasing digestive enzymes) at the proper times. Conversely, when you skip meals and simply grab a bite whenever there’s time, your body might send out conflicting signals about when it’s hungry and when it’s full, causing you to end up eating way too much. Furthermore, a constant eating pattern will also help in regulating sleeping patterns, your ability to wake up and handle stress.

2. Be sparing

Our digestive system is not designed to work 24/7. It needs time to rest, to move digested food and ensure proper absorption of nutrients and turn stored fat into energy. Frequent eating will also disrupt the unique rhythms of organs  which take care of specialized functions—things like the processing of carbohydrates by our liver or insulin production in our pancreas. Put simply, two to four meals a day is good. Unless, of course, you’re an athlete looking to achieve with specific body weight or muscle mass targets. That would be a completely different story.

3. Be a daylight eater

There’s a reason why midnight snacking is considered bad for you, even dangerous. Our ancestors would do everything—including eating—between sunrise and sunset. And, actually, we’ve never really evolved past that stage: Our bodies’ natural cycles governing enzymes, hormones and everything else are still hardwired to follow this pattern to maintain proper metabolism.

4. Be gradual

There are studies that indicate how eating more in the morning, a bit less for lunch and the least at night is the best way to maintain your ideal body weight. Furthermore, it’s better to get most of your protein in the morning and most of your carbs for dinner or for post-workout meals. Protein for breakfast is important as in the morning, your body will need to rebuild after a lengthy period without food. The vitamin B12 content of most protein-rich foods will also help keep you alert during the day. Carbohydrates, meanwhile, triggers your body to replenish glycogen in your muscles and triggers the release of insulin. The latter will, among others, help lower the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, thereby helping you rest.