November 17, 2020

Meal timing and frequency's impact on metabolic health

Figure out how to time your meals in a way that supports your body and mind

Stability

Keeping your blood sugar stable throughout the day can really make a difference when it comes to your health and wellness. Not only will it support your metabolic health, but it will also improve your everyday life by giving you more energy and focus.

Food, the necessary fuel for your metabolic engine, has without a doubt the biggest impact on your blood sugar. The rise in blood sugar after a meal is a result of carbohydrates being broken down and turned into glucose. Glucose is released into the bloodstream as blood sugar and then transported to cells and tissues to be used as fuel and to be stored for later use.

Fast changes - spikes - in your blood sugar can cause feelings of being tired and out of focus. It can also contribute to daily mood swings and other lovely feelings such as hunger, anger and uncontrollable food cravings.

The spikes can be avoided by paying attention to the meals you eat. Mostly it is about the amount and quality of the carbohydrates you eat, but also avoiding “naked carbs” (eating carbohydrate-rich foods alone) has a major impact on your blood sugar response. Blood sugar responses for carbohydrate-rich foods are more modest when paired with other foods, especially with something that is rich in protein.

But besides what, it also comes down to when.


Meal timing

Meal timing can make a big difference when the goal is to keep blood sugar levels stable throughout the day.

Several studies have shown that eating carbohydrate-containing meals later in the day causes a higher blood sugar response compared to consuming the same meal earlier in the day (1,2,3). The absolute worst for your metabolism seems to be eating in the middle of the night, as shown by studies with shift workers (4).

Being more tolerant of carbohydrates in the morning seems to be because of our internal biological clock. Many of our bodily functions developed to follow the natural light-dark or awake-sleep cycle. Metabolism is no exception.

Our gut processes food faster in the morning (5), while the secretion of many metabolic hormones also follows the same rhythm (6). These observations suggest that our body is just simply more efficient at processing food during the early hours (7).

And well if you think about it, energy is mainly needed during the day when we are meant to be more active, while our bodies are programmed to rest and recover during the night.


Frequency and regularity

On top of when, another thing that you should be paying attention to is how often.

Our metabolism is designed to store energy from meals. That energy is then released and used between the meals. This way we don’t have to be constantly eating to keep our engines going, which is quite convenient.

Fuel up and you're good to go until the next meal.

But one of the modern world problems is that many of us ARE eating constantly, either in the form of solid snacks or sugary drinks. As it turns out, this meal pattern might actually be very bad for our health.

With constant snacking, our metabolism gets bombarded with food constantly, with no breaks in between. Our bodies were designed to alternate between feeding and fasting. The breaks between the meals also gives our metabolism a break from processing food. Our current eating habits, however, puts our metabolism under constant and unnecessary metabolic stress.

Majority of people follow very inconsistent meal times, and those with a typical work week tend to have a very different meal schedule on the weekends compared to weekdays. Being inconsistent and irregular with the number of daily meals and meal times has been suggested to cause “metabolic jetlag”, throwing our internal biological clock out of balance. This may contribute to feeling less energetic and even sleep problems.

The mainstream health messages are often to eat 5-6 meals a day. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, accompanied by a morning and afternoon snack. Adding snacks between your main meals is often promoted for better appetite control.

Following a fixed meal schedule of 3 main meals and 3 snacks instead of having an irregular meal frequency with the number of meals alternating anywhere between 3 and 9 meals was shown to result in a more modest blood sugar responses after meals just in 2 weeks! These people also experienced being less hungry before the meals and more full afterwards. (8)

But more recent findings suggest that eating even less frequently might bring some extra benefits.

Emerging research suggests that eating only 3 meals a day is more beneficial to metabolic health compared to eating more frequently, such as 6 meals a day (9, 10). Eating less frequently, especially when timing the largest meals towards the early hours of the day seems to also prevent weight gain (10).

When we think about the practical side of this approach, eating only 3 meals a day instead of 6 takes a lot less planning, making it easier to be consistent with making nutritious meal choices that support health and wellbeing.


Time restriction

You might have also heard about intermittent fasting, an eating pattern where all daily meals are eaten within a specific time window.

The 16:8 pattern has gained the most attention during recent years. Consume all your daily meals within an 8-hour time window, while fasting for 16-hours.

In practice there are a couple of ways to do this, by either skipping breakfast and starting your day with lunch, or starting your day with breakfast and finishing with a very early dinner.

The metabolic magic seems to lie in the fact that a longer fasting period gives our metabolism a well deserved longer break from processing food. Intermittent fasting has been shown to lower metabolic stress and improve especially carbohydrate metabolism. And if you are trying to shed some extra pounds, intermittent fasting has also been linked to more successful weight loss.

Research suggests that following an intermittent fasting schedule where the daily eating window is timed towards the morning might have slightly more health benefits compared to a late eating schedule (11). If the 16:8 pattern sounds a bit too challenging, which it might be for some individuals due to work or family life, there is still some good news.

Metabolic health can be improved even with more modest alterations. A study showed that when people delayed their breakfast and advanced their dinner for 1,5h each from their usual meal schedule, they were able to improve their daily fasting blood sugar and loose weight (12).

So considering all these different aspects, the old saying “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper” may hold a significant amount of wisdom in the light of the newest research.

If you decide to jump from eating more frequently to eating less frequently, avoiding low blood sugar is the key to feel fuelled and energized even if the time between two meals grows longer. When eating only three meals a day, your meals most likely have to be slightly bigger to provide you with enough energy throughout the day - just remember to watch out for those blood sugar spikes.

The bigger the meal, the more mindful you should be about the composition of that meal. Not being mindful of your carbohydrates and how you pair them with other foods can cause unnecessary spikes and dips, making it harder to keep the brain fog and uncalled cravings at bay.

But the most important thing that should not be forgotten:

We are all individuals. What works for you might not work for your partner, sister or neighbour.


Make it fit you

Maybe you get the most out of your days by skipping breakfast and starting your day from lunch. Or maybe adding an extra snack and going beyond the three meal rule is just the thing you need to keep yourself energized and focused. Or maybe you see no difference in how your body handles carbohydrates in the morning versus at night.

The last two might come into play especially if you are into exercise and sports. Physical activity adds an interesting piece to the whole daily puzzle.

Being physically active has many metabolic benefits. In a nutshell, no matter what type of exercise you do, aerobic or resistance, if you do it regularly it will help your metabolism to process meals and carbohydrates better (13).

If you eat a carbohydrate containing meal right after an exercise session, the rise in blood sugar will be more modest compared to eating the same meal without the exercise. The benefits of exercise are observed most clearly on the meals eaten right after the session, but with some people the effect can last up to 48 hours. (14)

Getting active right after a carbohydrate rich meal can also have a favourable effect on your blood sugar. Just going for a short walk after your meal can be enough to flatten the blood sugar curve (15). Even only taking regular breaks from sitting throughout the day has been shown to result in more modest changes in blood sugar after meals consumed throughout the day (16).

Active individuals tend to generally have a more modest blood sugar response to carbohydrates and a better glycemic control.

When it comes to making the most out of your days, putting all the pieces together might seem quite puzzling. But with Veri, you get objective data to make more sense out of your days.

Veri does not only show you the changes in your blood sugar, but also helps you to understand how your meals impact you. Each meal you log in Veri has a Meal Score calculated for it based on your blood sugar response, allowing you to easily compare meals and eating patterns to see what suits you the best. Veri also imports your workouts so you can see how your blood sugar changes during and after exercise.

Let Veri be your personal guide into your metabolism by helping you to make consistent, well-informed decisions that will improve both your everyday wellness and long-term health.


References


1. M Takahashi et al. “Effects of Meal Timing on Postprandial Glucose Metabolism and Blood Metabolites in Healthy Adults”, 2018, Published in Nutrients. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6266071/

2. C Morris et al. “Endogenous circadian system and circadian misalignment impact glucose tolerance via separate mechanisms in humans”, 2015, Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4418873/

3. C Bandin et al. “Meal timing affects glucose tolerance, substrate oxidation and circadian-related variables: A randomized, crossover trial”, 2014, Published in International Journal of Obesity. URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo2014182

4. S Al-Naimi et al. “Postprandial metabolic profiles following meals and snacks eaten during simulated night and day shift work”, 2004, Published in Chronobiology International. URL: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1081/cbi-200037171

5. R Goo et al. “Circadian variation in gastric emptying of meals in humans”, 1987, Published in Gastroenterology. URL: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3609660/

6. J Qian et al. “Differential effects of the circadian system and circadian misalignment on insulin sensitivity and insulin secretion in humans”, 2018, Published in Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism. URL: https://dom-pubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/dom.13391

7. C Morris et al. “The human circadian system has a dominating role in causing the morning/evening difference in early diet-induced thermogenesis”, 2015, Published in Obesity. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4602397/

8. M Alhussain et al. “Irregular meal-pattern effects on energy expenditure, metabolism, and appetite regulation: a randomized controlled trial in healthy normal-weight women”, 2016, Published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. URL: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/104/1/21/4633920

9. H Kahleova et al. “Meal Frequency and Timing Are Associated with Changes in Body Mass Index in Adventist Health Study”, 2017, Published in Journal of Nutrition. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5572489/

10. A Paoli et al. “The Influence of Meal Frequency and Timing on Health in Humans: The Role of Fasting”, 2019, Published in Nutrients. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6520689/

11. A Hutchison et al. “Time‐Restricted Feeding Improves Glucose Tolerance in Men at Risk for Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Crossover Trial”, 2019, Published in Obesity. URL: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/oby.22449#.XLoJjv3rm4s

12. R Antoni et al, “A pilot feasibility study exploring the effects of a moderate time-restricted feeding intervention on energy intake, adiposity and metabolic physiology in free-living human subjects”, 2018, Published in Journal of Nutritional Science. URL: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-nutritional-science/article/pilot-feasibility-study-exploring-the-effects-of-a-moderate-timerestricted-feeding-intervention-on-energy-intake-adiposity-and-metabolic-physiology-in-freeliving-human-subjects/9C604826401917A6CAD9CD10B72FEA32

13. P Evans et al. “Regulation of Skeletal Muscle Glucose Transport and Glucose Metabolism by Exercise Training”, 2019, Published in Nutrients. URL: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6835691/

14. L Sylow et al. “Exercise-stimulated glucose uptake - regulation and implications for glycaemic control”, 2016, Published in Nature Reviews Endocrinology. URL: https://www.nature.com/articles/nrendo.2016.162

15. J Haxhi et al. “Exercising for Metabolic Control: Is Timing Important?”, 2013, Published in Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism. URL: https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/343788

16. F Benatti and M Ried-Larsen. “The Effects of Breaking up Prolonged Sitting Time: A Review of Experimental Studies”, 2015, Published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. URL: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26378942/  

Needless to say, we're just getting started and are excited to share all our learnings in the future!

To optimal health,
Anttoni, Frans & Verneri

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