Needless to say, food choices matter a great deal to health and weight control.
It's very clear that a balanced, whole foods diet is essential to leading a healthier, possibly longer, life.
And — judging by two recent evidence reviews — when you eat also matters to avoiding weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.
Evidence review links irregular eating to weight gain and disease
A field of research known as chrono-nutrition probes the impact of meal timing on health, via its impact on circadian rhythms.
Circadian rhythms — our biological “clocks” — occur in the brain and other organs, and affect metabolic processes linked to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.
Two teams of Swiss, British, and Dutch scientists recently reviewed the available evidence on how meal patterns affect health by influencing our circadian rhythms (Almoosawi S et al. 2016; Pot GK et al. 2016).
There's limited research in this realm, but the two European teams found substantial evidence linking irregular eating to weight gain and ill health.
Both evidence reviews found that meal timing influences circadian rhythms in key organs.
And, both found evidence linking irregular eating to having a bigger body mass index (BMI) and greater risks for metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and obesity.
When should we eat?
Dr. Gerda Pot, the co-author of one evidence review, cited an old proverb:
“There seems to be some truth in the saying 'Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper'.”
However, she acknowledged some uncertainty: “Although the evidence suggests that eating more calories later in the evening is associated with obesity, we are still far from understanding whether our energy intake should be distributed equally across the day, or whether breakfast should contribute the greatest proportion of energy, followed by lunch and dinner."
Unfortunately, many people can't easily stick to a regular schedule of three balanced meals a day.
And it's not uncommon to skip meals, eat on the go, or “graze” through the day before sitting down to a big, relatively late dinner.
Advance planning and preparation are key to maintaining a regular meal schedule.
Decide what you want at each meal, keep it simple, and get the goods ahead of time.
Taking your lunch or dinner to work gives you more control over what you eat, versus going out or getting takeout.
Irregular work-hours also hurt
Like irregular meals, inconsistent working hours can raise the risk of metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
Last year, a Brazilian scientific team looked for evidence on the health effects of late and inconsistent work shifts.
Their evidence review found that irregular eating patterns probably raise the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, metabolic syndrome and excessive consumption of carbs (Brum MC et al. 2015).
Junky diets promote heavy dinners
In addition to the timing of meals, the European teams also reviewed research on meal frequency.
They found studies showing that junky diets with lots of empty calories — such as the standard American diet — make people more likely to skip breakfast and down most of their calories later in the day.
That finding provides even more motivation to favor whole, nutrient-dense foods, and avoid take-out and packaged foods.
The trick is to resist the allure of guilty pleasures long enough for the desire to indulge to pass.
It helps to find new pleasures — such as trail mix instead of pastry — that satisfy and nourish simultaneously.